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CUP: NASCAR Awash In Vegas Neon Once More

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Racing tires will be changed – in haste but with no real pressure – this week along the Las Vegas Strip.

Gaudily designed race cars will spin faster than those evil slot machines – and within the long shadows of the gold-tinted casinos where the real money changes hands.

Fans of one sport – professional rodeo – in town for its national championships will mix with and be entertained by fans of another – NASCAR – toasting its seasonal kings.

And Jimmie Johnson, he of the seemingly perpetual position at the top of all this, will ride into the Western sunset with a check that could run a few Third World countries, a strange-looking trophy that mimics four others he already owns and a Goodyear-provided replica gold champion’s car that will join the Johnson fleet already on display.

Only in Las Vegas could all this be happening, as yet another Jimmie Johnson-colored Sprint Cup season winds to a close in America’s neon capital.

For the second straight year – after a critically praised debut celebration last season, NASCAR will be saluting its champion in Sin City, which proved to be a much more accepting host than New York City, which had been the season-ending awards banquet’s location since 1981.

Vegas provided wide-open spaces, hotel/casinos with grinning hosts and hungry blackjack dealers, massive ballrooms big enough to host limited non-nuclear wars and city leaders not just amenable to NASCAR’s hopes and dreams but virtually stumbling over themselves to grant them.

Now, Vegas Year Two.

Champion’s Week is scheduled to begin Wednesday with a gathering of the top 12 drivers at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a roulette-wheel spin or two on the outskirts of town. Much of the morning and most of the afternoon will be filled with activities, including a 12:30 p.m. go-cart race featuring comedian Carrot Top, San Francisco Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand and a sprinkling of local celebrities.

The highlight of the speedway program – at 2 p.m. – will match the Chase drivers – divided into two teams – in a game of Family Feud. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Johnson will make up one team, and Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton will be on the other. (Note, perhaps with some suspicion, that recent combatants Burton and Gordon are on separate teams).

The winning team will earn the use of a speedway suite during the NASCAR race weekend next year.

Thursday will hold more driver appearances and the first big ceremony of the week.

At 11 a.m., drivers, officials, team and sponsor representatives and news media members will gather for the National Motorsports Press Association’s annual Myers Brothers luncheon. A long list of awards that won’t fit in Friday night’s main banquet program will be presented, and there will be much talk about the season past and the one to come.

At 3:30 p.m., the top 12 drivers will drive race cars along the Strip – with a police escort, of course. There will be a burnout or two along the way, and Johnson will make the biggest celebratory smokeout at the end of the Strip. Thousands lined the street for the so-called Victory Lap last year.

After the lap, the drivers will be available for a fan question-and-answer session at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Friday is the big day. Johnson – and those who Chased him – will be honored at the awards banquet at the Wynn hotel. Among the entertainers will be comedian Frank Caliendo (a hit at last year’s banquet), Rascal Flatts and singers Martina McBride and Colbie Caillet.

About 250 Hendrick Motorsports employees and spouses will be on hand for the Johnson celebration. Back home in Charlotte, Hendrick will host another gathering for about 900 other team associates.

From Wednesday through Friday, NASCAR show cars will be on display at numerous locations – in front of hotel-casinos and restaurants, for examples – along the Strip.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.