LAS VEGAS ? A NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony that started out with fireworks from host Jay Mohr culminated with a consensus and heartfelt appreciation for NASCAR family and fans and a huge nod to the historic and Hall of Fame path set forth by the night's honoree, six-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, who closed out the program quoting the late Nelson Mandela.
Before Johnson took the stage Friday night at the luxurious Wynn Las Vegas - a good three hours into the evening program ? rocker John Mellencamp opened the night's championship celebration with a pair of classic hits giving way to the former Saturday Night Live cast member Mohr, who proved no one was off limits from his pointed humor.
The comedian took shots at everyone from future Hall of Famers Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon to this year's rookie candidates Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and even NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Perhaps the biggest laughs came as Mohr used Gordon's late addition 13th spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup as a recurring joke on the night. After suggesting that apparently NASCAR literally can't have a Chase without Gordon, he noted there were more Chase drivers this season than members of the Kardashian family.
Mohr pretended to get updates throughout the program. First, he joked that Gordon had also been added to the BCS championship game and would play against top-ranked Florida State. Then, he joked that the four-time Cup champ was a late addition to the Academy Awards Best Picture category. And finally that there was going to be a 13th month added to the calendar, "Gordon-ary."
Gordon was good natured about the kidding, saying "As long as the people at home are laughing. ? because some of those jokes are true." During his speech, however, Gordon insisted, "We may have been a late addition but I knew in my heart we belonged in the Chase. We proved that week after week."
Acknowledging immediate backlash on social media about his jabs on Patrick, Mohr backed off his initial monologue. Camera breakaways to Patrick and her boyfriend Stenhouse, showed the couple was less than amused by the jokes Mohr made at their expense.
"I know you aren't used to being this close to the front," Mohr said of Patrick's table toward the stage.
And after further shots about them wrecking with another, Patrick seized the opportunity to speak out upon accepting a Sprint Fan Choice Award for winning the pole position for the Daytona 500.
"I'm so fortunate to have so many fans, but it's pretty safe to say Jay Mohr is not one of them," Patrick said.
When Mohr returned to the stage, he admitted his Twitter feed had been blowing up about the Patrick wisecracks.
Insisting he wanted to set the record straight, Mohr said, "I could not be a bigger Danica fan. I love Danica Patrick, so save your tweets, haters."
Later Clint Bowyer encouraged reporters, "you better get your cameras out because Danica may kick his ass."
As the evening went on, the laughs gave way to poignancy. It understandably turned to more serious and respectful tributes to Johnson's impressive sixth championship run in the last eight years.
Johnson's team owner Rick Hendrick congratulated his "hero" Roger Penske for Nationwide Series owners' championship and called Gordon his "biggest recruiter" for urging him to hire Johnson .
Championship runner-up Matt Kenseth joked that Johnson should, "seriously contemplate retirement. Take up new hobbies! Enjoy yourself! We'll all chip in."
Johnson would say later that he always gets nervous making speeches, but you would never know based on his delivery Saturday night.
He was truly humbled by the kind and hefty words directed toward him throughout the evening from series sponsors, NASCAR executives and his competitors. When spoken of in the same stratosphere of the only other six-time champions, Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, Johnson was truly moved.
"To do something only those two have done is crazy and wild and truthfully we're all indebted to them," he said.
Then after thanking his team, Hendrick, crew chief Chad Knaus (who sat with Johnson's three-year old daughter Genevieve at the head table), the fans and his family, Johnson tapped into an inspirational quote from South African President Nelson Mandela to close out the festivities and punctuate the night.
"Sport has the power to change the world it has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way little else does," Johnson said.
"That's true. And that's NASCAR."
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Sports & Recreation
- Arts & Entertainment
- Jay Mohr
- Danica Patrick
- Nelson Mandela