NEW YORK – Call it the Noscars. NASCAR's annual awards banquet in the Big Apple is where the glitz and glamour of the Oscars meets the gas fumes and grime of stock car racing.
Seeing guys like newly crowned Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch and crew chief Jimmy Fennig in tuxedos Friday night – rather than in firesuits or crew shirts – borders on unnerving. Observing them walking around amid the ostentatious grandeur of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel instead of strolling through the gritty pits of Bristol or Darlington takes a lot of getting used to.
Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from Friday's shindig:
NBC's Bill Weber, who served as master of ceremonies, started things off on the wrong foot with a lame opening joke about the recent cancellation of Speed TV's "Pit Bull" show that featured reporters usually blasting NASCAR. While Weber had a broad smile on his face upon telling the joke, he received back maybe a dozen weak chuckles in return. Note to Weber: Get a better writing team for your material next year, OK?
In fairness to Weber, he did have a good closing monologue, including his commentary on Busch earning $5,356,181 "and some change" for being the 2004 Nextel Cup champion: "From Bristol to Broadway, Kurt Busch, you have arrived. From the bright lights of Las Vegas to the brighter lights of New York, his name is now on the marquee."
A sign of things to come? While there were only a few mistakes made on stage during the nearly three-hour event, one very glaring error raised more than a few eyebrows. During a video montage of comments by drivers and team owners discussing Nextel's impact upon the sport as series sponsor in 2004, a three-second clip showed Richard Childress on the left side of the screen with a split-screen of identical images of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on top of each other on the right. Rumors continue to build – and especially in light of this past week's shakeup at Dale Earnhardt Inc. – that Dale Earnhardt Jr. may jump ship after his contract with DEI expires following the 2006 season and join RCR, perhaps replacing Kevin Harvick.
While there's no question he has great talent as a driver, Kasey Kahne was arguably the stiffest and seemingly most uncomfortable driver on stage all evening. He made several mistakes reading from teleprompters and gave the impression of being a deer in the headlights – or spotlights in this case.
One of the classiest moments of the night was when Elliott Sadler thanked U.S. troops for their sacrifices in keeping the U.S. safe.
Last season's final Winston Cup champion, Matt Kenseth, poked some fun at teammate Busch. "Since I was partly responsible for the change in the Cup format, I was wondering if I could maybe get a share of Kurt's $5 million," Kenseth smiled.
Payback time: It took him two months, but Earnhardt Jr. extracted some revenge on NASCAR president Mike Helton for the 25-point penalty and $10,000 fine levied for swearing during a live post-race interview on NBC in early October. "Our year was, I guess you can say, one that made some headlines. It was a great year. We won six races, but, you know, that ain't crap. ... I was even responsible for the five-second delay [on TV]. Some people might consider that bad, but shoot, I think it's progress."
Classiest speech of the night: Veteran driver Mark Martin stole the show, and without a script. He was the only Chase driver to give his speech completely off the cuff without help from the teleprompter. He looked NASCAR chairman Brian France in the eye, said he wasn't an early supporter of the Chase format, and then boldly added, "I was wrong."
When it came time for Martin to acknowledge Busch, his teammate at Roush Racing, he did so eloquently: "You are, without a doubt, the finest young race car driver that I have ever seen."
When Martin finished his speech, Mohr came over to him, as he did with all other drivers on-stage, and said, "No jokes this time. When I think of class in NASCAR, I think of you."
Biggest surprise of the night: Jeff Gordon, who had been hospitalized in New York City since Tuesday with a serious case of the flu, emerged from his sick bed – he even skipped the dinner, coming directly from the hospital and timing his arrival perfectly to accept the third-place finisher trophy.
While he looked gaunt and dehydrated, Gordon showed the same kind of grit he displays on the racetrack by giving an outstanding speech despite his weakened condition. He even cracked a few jokes. "Congratulations to NASCAR for coming up with this great, new format and then having the courage to actually implement it," he said. "Now that we know what to expect, I feel next year is really going to be intense – although under the old point system, I think I would have finished, ah, it's not important. I'll get over it – some day."
Without question, the man of the hour, Kurt Busch, was the best-dressed attendee of the night. He looked debonair and refined, but still in a country bumpkin kind of way – sort of like a cross between James Bond and the late Jim Varney's "Ernest" character. I was waiting for him to break out a cigarette in a long holder and start talking in a cockney accent. Know what I mean, Vern?
Busch got choked up when he thanked dazzling girlfriend Eva Bryan for her love and support. For a moment, it appeared as if the champ was going to pop the big question. But with more than $9.5 million in overall earnings through the season, Busch probably might want to get a pre-nup first.
The longest speech of the night was delivered by Jack Roush, who droned on and on and on. But when you're the owner of the championship-winning car, I guess rank allows you such privileges. As for his wardrobe, well, even resplendent in a tuxedo, Roush still just doesn't look right without his trademark outback hat and bolo tie straps.
Some of the best one-liners of the night:
"I love listening to Elliott Sadler talk – and then Ricky Rudd tells me what he said." – Bill Weber.
"I was hoping there'd be a little Viagra in the gift baskets." – actor Jay Mohr, who served as the evening's comedic foil.
"What was your pickup line? 'Hi, I'm Peyton Manning'?" – Mohr to Busch on how he and his girlfriend met.
"For all of you who were here last year, I promise I won't cry. That was embarrassing." – Jamie McMurray, who broke into tears at last year's banquet after winning Rookie of the Year honors. (On Friday, McMurray had a lot to smile, not cry about – he accepted his cool $1 million bonus check for finishing 11th.)
"You're sweating like Mike Tyson in a spelling bee." – Mohr to a nervous Jeremy Mayfield after he accepted his 10th-place trophy.
"I'll try to talk slow so you can understand what I'm saying." – Sadler, whose heavy Virginia accent and propensity to talk fast don't always mix.
"They hate me because I'm beautiful." – Mohr on Kasey Kahne, who was recently named one of the 50 most eligible and best-looking bachelors in a poll.
"I did thank him, and you all heard it." – Ryan Newman referring to Rusty Wallace, who shares ownership of Newman's No. 12 Dodge. Newman and Wallace feuded late in the season for a perceived lack of respect that Newman showed his elder teammate.
"Thank you, sweetie. I love you and I can't wait until next weekend." – Jimmie Johnson to fiancé Chandra Janway, whom he will wed next Saturday.
Some of the evening's lowlights:
Weber introducing every member of the France family, ad nauseum, something you wouldn't see in other sports. This was a night to celebrate the crowning of Busch as Nextel Cup champ and highlighting NASCAR's accomplishments in 2004, not a gushing, over-the-top tribute to the Frances. Of course, since they were footing the bill, I guess they were entitled.
Instead of gushing over the Frances, NASCAR should have put together a fitting tribute to the 10 victims of the Hendrick Motorsports airplane crash on Oct. 24 near Martinsville, Va. While there was a moment of silence for them prior to the invocation, as well as several references to the victims in speeches by championship team owner Jack Roush, Tony Stewart and others, NASCAR really dropped the ball by not having a fitting tribute, particularly a video memorial of each victim.
Right after recognizing all the extended members of the France clan, there was an overly long – more than two minutes – tribute to sponsors within the series. By the time Weber finished reading the list, people were chatting to each other and fidgeting noticeably in their seats.
A segment that introduced all of NASCAR's top officials looked more like a commercial promoting the latest TV news team, with the way Brian France, Helton, George Pyne, John Darby and others were captured walking toward the camera, usually with folded arms in a we-mean-business stance.
Not something you would expect from such a high-class joint as the Waldorf: Numerous guests in attendance were beckoning for water or something cold to drink during the latter stages of the awards presentation, but nary a waiter was in sight. Some guests were so desperate to quench their parched throats that they walked to the kitchen for some water or soda.
Another Waldorf faux pas: The awards ceremony ended around 11 p.m., but it took nearly an hour and a half for hotel staff to clear the grand ballroom of tables and chairs and prepare for the post-ceremony party. Further hampering the situation were security personnel who refused to allow anyone to return upstairs, even if they left purses or family members. By the time the party got into high gear, hundreds of banquet attendees had given up hope and left, passing up the chance to imbibe free drinks and killer desserts.
Among non-Chase drivers and team owners in attendance: Dale Jarrett, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Ward Burton, Chip Ganassi and J.D. Gibbs.
Former Creed front man Scott Stapp sang two of his former band's biggest hits – "Take Me Higher" and "Arms Wide Open" – as part of the evening's entertainment. Stapp, who soon will release his first solo CD, was in fine form with a strong voice.
R&B singer Brian McKnight performed his hit "Win" solo on a shiny black grand piano.
It seems that Kenseth's sideburns just keep getting longer and longer. He's starting to look a lot like Bowzer of Sha Na Na fame.