Change of scenery suits NASCAR, fans


It was 40 degrees with rain Wednesday in New York City, but the weather was perfect for the first major event of the first NASCAR Champion's Week in Las Vegas.

It was a colorful afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where fans wore various hats, jackets and shirts saluting their favorite drivers during the inaugural Chasers for Charity Fanfest, which included a roast of four-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

The estimated crowd of 2,000 in the speedway's Neon Garage area was treated to a free afternoon of car displays, live music and a question-and-answer session with former Cup champion Dale Jarrett before the top 12 Cup drivers arrived.

And the crowd enjoyed every reminder that Las Vegas was hosting Champion's Week, an event that had taken place in New York City since 1981.

"This trip is our Christmas present to each other," said Ron Coppinger, who traveled to Las Vegas from Port Orchard, Wash., with his wife, Marshon.

The couple said they came to see the Fanfest and today's Victory Lap on the Strip, which will begin at 3:30 p.m. in front of the MGM Grand and cruise to Spring Mountain Road before returning to the MGM.

Johnson will lead the parade of the 12 best drivers, but the Coppingers will be more focused on their favorite, Mark Martin, who autographed a magazine for them while waiting along a red carpet walkway.

The Coppingers joined about 250 other people who each made a charitable donation of $250 to attend the roast of Johnson by his fellow drivers. The event was shown free on closed-circuit television in the Neon Garage.

Jokes abounded about Johnson's squeaky-clean reputation, receding hairline or good looks.

But most drivers were more eager to salute Johnson for his accomplishment as the first Cup driver to win four consecutive championships than attack any shortcomings.

"I have struggled to figure out how to roast a guy who has kicked our ass for four years," said Tony Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, who will host his third annual "Stewie Awards" on Sirius satellite radio at 7 p.m. today in a free event at the Rio. "You're one of the greatest champions who has ever lived."

Kasey Kahne summed up Johnson as having "money, a gorgeous wife, four consecutive championships and a winning personality ... well, at least you have money, a gorgeous wife and four consecutive championships."

At the urging of emcee Kevin Burke, who stars in "Defending the Caveman" at Excalibur, the roast began to heat up.

Denny Hamlin quipped: "It's tough to win four championships with the best crew chief (Chad Knaus), best team (Hendrick Motorsports) and not having mechanical failures in four (expletive) years."

Greg Biffle followed by saying, "I'm not going to say a (expletive) thing about Jimmie because I'm tired of hearing his name."

It was all in fun.

At times, the event turned into a pep rally in support of NASCAR's decision to move Champion's Week to Las Vegas.

"We went to New York to celebrate, but we're in Las Vegas to party," said Kurt Busch, a Las Vegas native who won the championship in 2004 and finished this season fourth in points.

Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247. Go to lvrj.com/motorsports for details about Champion's Week.

 

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