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NASCAR brings fans up close, personal

It was just a coincidence that I downloaded "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," author Tom Wolfe’s first book of essays, onto my Kindle on the eve of learning I would be covering NASCAR Champion’s Week.

A lot of those essays are about the California car culture of the 1960s, the drag racing scene there, and "The Last American Hero," Wolfe’s ode to NASCAR legend Junior Johnson. There also is a colorful dissertation about Las Vegas, all of which sort of prepared me for a trip to the Hard Rock Hotel for Thursday’s fan-friendly "After the Lap." The question-and-answer session with today’s top stock car drivers followed their traditional Victory Lap down the Strip.

It was fun, for sure, but nowhere near as cool as when Ryan Newman’s engine blew up in a ball of flame "During the Lap" featuring King Tony Stewart and his motorized court.

NASCAR has these marketing types who look 25 years old but are actually 40 whose job is to come up with fan-friendly events and give them clever names. This fan friendliness is why more people watch NASCAR races than any other sporting event, with the possible exception of Alabama football, which is sort of like NASCAR’s first cousin.

"When we came to Las Vegas three years ago, we were thinking for a way for fans to get up close to the drivers," said Norris Scott, who is named like a Crimson Tide quarterback but actually is a NASCAR marketing vice president from New York who looks to be 25 but is actually 40. "There aren’t a lot of sports leagues who bring their top 12 athletes together for one evening and let the fans ask them unfiltered questions."

"After the Lap" was a lot like Wednesday’s "Newlywed Game" on Fremont Street featuring the Chase for the Cup drivers. The primary differences were nobody kept score, and Bill Engvall, one of those blue-collar comedians, took the place of the real Bob Eubanks. It was the real Engvall, too, but I felt nowhere near as nostalgic when he cracked wise in trying to keep up with Matt Kenseth, who proved again that he is much funnier than he comes across on TV when being interviewed by Green Valley’s own Jamie Little, or Newton, N.C.’s own Dr. Jerry Punch in the pits.

The night started with news that Kurt Busch was seeing a psychologist to curb his "poor behavior," which is what NASCAR called it when it fined the Las Vegas-born lead foot $50,000 for cussing out the aforementioned Dr. Punch after Busch’s transmission blew into tiny bits at Homestead, Fla. It continued with NASCAR president Mike Helton saying a few words, not including, "Boys, have at it." That was too bad, because then the drivers would have finally known what that means.

But the boys had at it all right, making ribald jokes at each other’s expense until they and the crowd shamed Jeff Gordon into break dancing right there on stage. Gordon said all the cool kids in Vallejo, Calif., where he grew up, knew how to break dance, and I’ll be darned if the four-time series champion didn’t get down and start flipping around like "Marky" Mark Wahlberg to Led Zeppelin’s "Kashmir," which, to me, was a bigger upset than Trevor Bayne winning this year’s Daytona 500.

It also was the second time in less than an hour I thought of Junior Johnson, and what he would make of all this.

The first time was when I walked by the Pink Taco: If Junior Johnson were still making those bootleg turns and tromping the gas in his ’63 Holly Farms Chevy, they would have to hold "After the Lap" at the North Wilkesboro VFW.

Ol’ Junior wouldn’t be caught dead in a place with a name like the Pink Taco.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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