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NASCAR Champion’s Week is back in Las Vegas, minus downtown Fanfest

It’s NASCAR Champion’s Week in Las Vegas (again), and this year’s champion who will be feted is Jimmie Johnson (again).

Johnson, who once upon a dusty time competed in off-road deserts and stadiums (long live Mickey Thompson) around here, oozes class. So there is about a zero percent chance he will be seen slamming a Miller Lite in front of school kids, or urinating in the corner of a hospitality tent and having a rival driver take a photo and post it on Twitter.

That’s what Clint Bowyer did to Brad Keselowski, the 2012 champion.

Keselowski was considered a breath of fresh air then, and he still pretty much is. With TV ratings and attendance dwindling — and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart having retired, and Dale Jr. still nursing a bad headache — NASCAR probably needs a few breaths of fresh air.

But what Keselowski did gave entirely new meaning to bringing out the yellow.

Johnson will be on his best behavior after winning his record-tying seventh Cup championship in dramatic fashion a couple of weeks ago, because that’s Johnson’s style — neat and pressed. Like his beard and his sports jacket and his blue jeans.

He always has been great with school kids; most NASCAR drivers are. But this year he’ll encounter fewer of them, because the annual NASCAR Fanfest on Fremont Street — heretofore the unofficial kickoff to Champion’s Week — has been canceled.

The drivers aren’t complaining. It was their call.

Now, NASCAR will have you believe its drivers are more accessible than basic math and free Miller Lite. But if you have ever tried to get an autograph on race weekend when most are holed up in their motor homes between practice sessions, you might beg to differ.

Perhaps stock car drivers were accessible in Junior Johnson’s day, and Ned Jarrett’s day, or even his son Dale Jarrett’s day, because I remember seeing Dale Jarrett signing myriad autographs when he couldn’t get a tee time. But that’s pretty much a fallacy today.

The Fanfest on Fremont had little to do with NASCAR, and that would explain the black flag. It was a Las Vegas Motor Speedway production. When NASCAR moved its awards show from New York City to Las Vegas, LVMS officials saw an opportunity to engender goodwill between the sport and local race fans who collect diecast cars.

“With (Champion’s Week) under our noses, we should have an event,” LVMS president Chris Powell said.

And so drivers were invited to compete in game show send-ups on the Third Street Stage — one year it was the “Newlywed Game,” and Bob Eubanks himself agreed to emcee, and Eubanks was awesome. Another year it was “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” If memory serves, it was a tie between Brad Keselowski and his fifth-grader.

A lot of people would show up, even when the weather was brisk. Most would leave with an autograph or a selfie or a smile.

This year, Fanfest was canceled. And now Champion’s Week is even less accessible to the average fan.

Yes, you can still stand on a pedestrian bridge spanning the Strip and watch the drivers do burnouts on Thursday. You can go to After The Lap at the Palms and blush at their tawdry jokes. After The Lap costs $14.68 to get in, according to Ticketmaster. The LVMS Fanfest on Fremont was free.

“I was highly disappointed,” Powell said about Fanfest being shown the black flag, and that was about all he would say, because Powell has friends in NASCAR, or at least relationships that must be protected.

You would think that with TV ratings and attendance dwindling, and NASCAR still having yet to announce a new title sponsor to replace Sprint, the sanctioning body might have bent over backward, or at least a little sideways, to accommodate one of its tracks in its hometown.

I’ll bet if somebody would have asked Jimmie Johnson, he would have done it, because Johnson oozes class. Brad Keselowski probably would have shown up a day early, too, provided there was free Miller Lite.

But it would appear most NASCAR drivers have morphed into ballplayers during the All-Star break. Don’t bother asking them to compete in the Home Run Derby. They’d rather be fishing, or partying in private in a penthouse suite at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

In a related note, the Electric Daisy Carnival has drafted past NASCAR Weekend as Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s primary cash cow, and hardly anybody at the speedway clamors for a second Cup race anymore.


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

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