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CUP: Awards Banquet Turns Up The Volume

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Perhaps aware of criticism of its Sprint Cup awards banquet as being basically a parade of fast-driving guys strolling across a stage looking like penguins, NASCAR ratcheted up the pizzazz level of its end-of-season show considerably last year.

There was a bigger platform – Las Vegas provides that and more, and the NASCAR production team took advantage, spreading the ballroom with color and sound and scoring a hit by bringing in comedian and impressionist Frank Caliendo, marquee performer at the Monte Carlo hotel-casino in town.

Caliendo had the right mix of topical humor and NASCAR-related barbs, and he’ll be back Friday night as the spotlighted entertainer as the awards banquet unfolds for the second time in Las Vegas.

As usual, there will be the speeches from drivers and others saluting an endless string of sponsors and, of course, all those boys back at the shop. Those moments often are repetitive, and some drivers are better behind the mic – Mark Martin was superb last year, for example – than others. But NASCAR has made big strides in trying to make the program almost as much about entertainment as it is about recognition, and those in attendance and those viewing live on SPEED (9 p.m. ET Friday) will notice an even greater “variety show” aspect this year.

Caliendo will make several appearances during the evening, and he’ll likely have a NASCAR impression or two to offer.

Television personalities Mike Joy and Krista Voda will open the program, and performers from a Las Vegas show will present “Viva Elvis."

The program also includes three notable musical guests – the Rascal Flatts band, country singer Martina McBride and rising star Colbie Caillat.

The top 10 drivers will make short speeches, beginning with 10th-place Clint Bowyer and ending with champion Jimmie Johnson. Caliendo, McBride and Caillat will perform between the driver appearances.

The presentation of the Sprint Cup trophy to Johnson is last on the program.

Making speeches is not one of Johnson’s favorite pastimes (although he’s been doing it a lot in recent years). Friends say he’s more comfortable talking with a list of “bullet points” and expounding on them rather than reading from a Teleprompter script.

After all the “thank-yous” are over, Johnson is likely to talk about the meaning behind winning a record fifth straight Sprint Cup championship, a feat no one else in NASCAR history has approached and one no one else is likely to repeat in the foreseeable future.

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.