Nashville, NASCAR make a fitting Champion's Week connection

Zack Albert

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Multiple signs dot the downtown streets to point out where the live music venues are, but they are hardly needed. The sound gives the directions.

The blare along Broadway’s crowded sidewalks happens morning, noon and night. And it’s not just country, but blues, honky-tonk, rock, alt-rock, classic rock, alt-country, new country, hick-hop, alt-metal. All sorts of music gets played here.

That enduring vibrance mixed with the raucous sound of revving engines, the smell of smoking tires, and the glow of cell-phone cameras for NASCAR Champion’s Week. After a decade of hosting the year-end awards in the glitz of Las Vegas, stock-car racing’s powers that be shifted to something new, but also familiar — a backdrop replete with much of the same neon, but with the addition of twang.

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NASCAR played the big room Thursday night in the majestic Music City Center, toasting 2019 champion Kyle Busch, a Vegas transplant who made himself at home this week in the Tennessee capital. He wasn’t alone.

“It feels really comfortable,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has advocated for NASCAR to restore its footprint in Nashville in more ways than just the postseason banquet.

The feel was new, and a welcome change. Vegas’ year-end awards celebration was martini glasses and Sinatra crooning and a place where the wink-and-point move came as second nature. The nickname NashVegas crops up now and again, but this year’s setting has a touch of blue collar, with a constant strum and a rekindled connection to stock-car racing’s regional roots.

The intertwining made complete sense. High octane meets hi-fi sound. A place where Yoakam meets Yocum.

“This has that intimate Southern feel,” Kurt Busch said. “You have that Southern hospitality here, not that the hospitality wasn’t great in Las Vegas or New York over the years, but the fans have been incredible. Just walking down Broadway, people come up, grab selfies, been signing autographs and it’s a cool town, cool vibe.”

Five blocks of live music and cold beer, with some boot shops and museums in between. Wednesday night, the dive-bar dwellers hung from the balconies and crammed behind the temporary barriers to get a better look at the spectacle of tire-squealing burnouts on Nashville’s historic main drag.

NASCAR left its imprint on the country-music hub, an impression that went beyond the labyrinth of skid marks applied to the city center pavement. And Nashville returned the embrace, delivering its brand of boozy recreation and late-night entertainment.

“We have had the limit of fun,” said Clint Bowyer, who seemed to test the limit most nights this week. “… Everybody was Nashvilled.”

There’s a small-town vibe amid the metropolitan atmosphere, but pro sports lives here, too, with the NFL’s Titans, the Predators of the NHL and a Major League Soccer expansion team coming in 2020. Big-league racing could be waiting on deck, if the murmurs about a potential return continue to carry weight.

“I do think this town has really welcomed us with open arms, which I thought was really cool,” said Chase Elliott, who was crowned Most Popular Driver for a second straight year. “I feel like we fit in here, and I think hopefully we can have this event here for a long time. Better yet, I’d love to have a race up here. That’s the end goal.”

RELATED: Elliott takes home second straight Most Popular Driver Award

For a rousing first week back in Nashville, the city showed it knew how to throw a party. Here’s hoping for a return invitation, maybe more than just once a year.

The sound could give directions. Nashville’s like that.

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