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Kyle Busch, NASCAR embracing Champion’s Week in Nashville

Updated December 4, 2019 - 7:06 pm

Shortly after winning the NASCAR championship on Nov. 17, Kyle Busch invoked a sentiment made famous by country music crooner Glen Campbell. He said Las Vegas was gentle on his mind.

“Well, we don’t get to go to my hometown this time around,” he said of the annual Champion’s Week celebration which has moved to Nashville, Tennessee. “Vegas was really good. We go to Nashville, so there’s going to be some differences. Hopefully, somebody has got a hell of a plan.”

Turns out somebody did.

On Monday in Music City, Busch won the WWE’s 24/7 title by pinning a professional wrestler called R-Truth on “Monday Night Raw.”

Busch’s reign as champion was shorter than Buster Douglas’ after upsetting Mike Tyson. R-Truth pinned him back when, according to Busch, his valet Michael Waltrip left the arena to hail a limo. But he seemed to take this defeat much more in stride than finishing second on the track.

Then on Tuesday, Busch attended the Nashville Predators’ game against Tampa Bay where the Preds’ presented him with a jersey with his name and number (18) on the back. He told NBC’s Pierre McGuire that he hoped the Golden Knights would make the playoffs “because I’m a hometown boy, and I cheer for all the hometown teams. But getting the Raiders — I don’t know if I can cheer for the Raiders” as a longtime Denver Broncos fan.

Busch was only speaking the truth. Or R-Truth.

Nashville all in

It already has been a busy week for the recently crowned champion, who will be feted during the Champion’s Week awards show on Thursday night. That should leave Busch just enough time to record a duet with Dolly Parton.

Perhaps relocating Champion’s Week wasn’t such a bad idea after all. The Grand Ole Opry seems to be pulling out all the stops for NASCAR.

Just as Las Vegas once had.

For most of its 10-year run on the Strip and its concentric circles, Champion’s Week seemed the ideal opening act for the National Finals Rodeo. It was wildly popular. Companion events such as burnouts on Las Vegas Boulevard, bawdy questions and answers afterward featuring the drivers and a game show on Fremont Street hosted by Bob Eubanks attracted large and enthusiastic crowds.

But that was before the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority ponied up $17.5 million over seven years to bring a second NASCAR race to town. The first fall race was in 2018, and it seemed to suck the life out of Champion’s Week in the same way a radiator grill sucks up a hot dog wrapper on the backstretch.

There were no burnouts on the Strip last year. No bawdy questions and answers. No faux “The Newlywed Game” downtown.

No fun at all, really.

Quiet departure

NASCAR and tourism officials left the door open. But when it was announced in March that Champion’s Week would be moving to Tennessee, nobody around here — with the possible exception of the Busch brothers — threw a monkey wrench.

“We still had people on the Strip, but it became more of a media event,” Las Vegas Events president Pat Christenson said of Champion’s Week gradual demise. “When you look at our priorities today, they’re different than they were 10 years ago.”

Ten years ago, NASCAR still was sort of booming. Now it is trying to pull out of a recession. Most of its tracks have removed huge sections of grandstands after interest and TV ratings in stock car racing faded like a rookie driver on a late restart.

“Las Vegas has been a great host for our NASCAR Awards and will continue to be an important market for NASCAR,” said Jill Gregory, the sanctioning body’s chief marketing officer. “Our industry and fans love racing in Vegas, and we look forward to bringing NASCAR racing back again over two weekends in 2020. Nashville provides the industry with an opportunity to transition our season-ending celebration to a new location rich with NASCAR synergies and provides a fresh look for our fans.”

The burnouts were back, too.

Kyle Busch’s older brother Kurt literally drove straight down Broadway (Street in downtown Nashville) with neon and smoke pouring from his wheels. Those who came pouring out of the honky-tonks to see what all the commotion was about received a visceral reminder of where he and Champion’s Week came from.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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