- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- In 1981, NASCAR moved its year-end awards banquet from the southland to New York in an effort to become more big time. The champion driver, a still-young Darrell Waltrip, picked up a check for $150,000. His car owner was former moonshine runner Junior Johnson and his crew chief was Tim Brewer.
One problem. The Big Apple couldn't have given less of a big whoop about the event.
A nation away in El Cajon, Calif., Jimmie Johnson was in kindergarten that day. A quarter century later, Johnson has owned New York for the second straight December, in town to pick up a tidy payment of $7.3 million. Meanwhile, DW and Brewer have become TV analysts and Junior Johnson has retired back to the Carolina hills where he used to haul 'shine.
As for the city, these days the event is too big to ignore. Then again, it's hard for the most jaded Manhattanite to tune out 10 guys in firesuits piloting 8,000 horsepower through the middle of Times Square, not to mention the fact that Johnson has logged more miles and shaken more hands than the mayor during what's now known as Champions Week.
For those of you who didn't receive an invite to the party (I'm looking at you, Dale Jr.), here are the highlights and lowlights of the week leading into and the night that was at the Waldorf-Astoria.
• Best New Innovation -- Instead of simply showing season highlight videos of the top 10 drivers as they took the stage, NASCAR rolled out new sit-down interviews with their significant others and family members. When it worked, the results were spectacular. Even when it didn't, it was still a good watch because the wives and moms clearly made their fearless husbands and sons look totally terrified.
• Best Banquet Speech (Driver) -- Say what you want about Tony Stewart, but his speeches are annually the most entertaining. He was genuinely gracious to Johnson and outgoing car maker GM and clearly couldn't have cared less about finishing in any points position other than first. To crew chief Greg Zipadelli: "I'm not married, so I guess you kind of played the wife role in my video there."
• Best Banquet Speech (Non-Driver) -- Tom Brokaw's tribute to Bill France Jr. It was funny, poignant, and respectful. It made us miss Bill Jr.'s guidance behind the sport and it also made us miss Brokaw behind the anchor desk.
• Worst Banquet Speech -- Kurt Busch's inability to read off the teleprompter was outshone only by his ability to sweat profusely.
• Most Awkward Scene, Part 1 -- During Kelly Clarkson's performance, Jimmie and Chandra Johnson had Clarkson's bassist and an ESPN cameraman practically crawling in their laps.
• Coolest Photo Op -- Johnson in Times Square. No matter how many times they do it, it's still impressive when the champ gets to stand on his car and pose with the Cup in Times Square. Even JJ won't argue with that. "Last year it was all a blur. I was so busy worried about looking stupid that I didn't get to enjoy it. This year I could have stood up on that car all night and never gotten tired of it."
• Strangest Photo Op -- Johnson at the United Nations. All I could think about as he and crew chief Chad Knaus posed in front of the UN building was to wonder what the Ambassador from Liechtenstein must have thought when he saw it outside his office window.
• David Spade's Best Line -- On riding along with NBC's Wally Dallenbach at Darlington two years ago: "I get the one guy who wasn't good enough to be in the actual race to drive me around."
• David Spade's Worst Line -- The whole fat lady on the airplane bit.
• Most Awkward Scene, Part 2 -- The endless cutaways of the stone-faced audience during the fat lady on the airplane bit.
• Surprising Tiffany's Sighting -- Ali Larter and Kristen Bell, blonde stars of NBC's "Heroes" at Thursday night's Tiffany's party. They were clearly happy to be at the world's most famous jewelry store, but clearly had no idea why they were there.
• Surprising Tiffany's Absence -- Kevin and Delana Harvick. "We wanted to be there," says the Daytona 500 champ. "But Delana was sick and just couldn't do it. Don't tell her, but I'm kind of glad. My bank account would have never made it out of there alive."
• Group You Would've Liked To Be Sitting With -- Johnson's pit crew. The fun was practically oozing from their ballroom balcony seat, so much so Brokaw made a crack about them having to visit the Betty Ford Center next week.
• Group You Wouldn't -- After 32 victories and three Daytona 500 wins, you'd think Dale Jarrett would have been assigned a better seat than the one between the suits from Sonoco and the kitchen door.
• Most Bizarre Voice -- Who was the woman announcing the drivers as they took the stage? She sounded like a cross between Jillian Barberie and Mae West.
• Best Backstage Moment -- I have no proof that this actually happened, but I have this mental image of a green room that included Tom Brokaw, Kelly Clarkson, David Spade and Mike Helton. What would they possibly have to talk about?
• Rubbin' is Racin' Award -- Despite a stern "pre-race" talking-to from the NYPD, Kyle Busch couldn't help himself during Wednesday morning's super slow parade lap around Times Square and ended up putting the chrome horn to Matt Kenseth's Ford during a "tire chirp." "Someone just told me these are cars from the Richard Petty Driving Experience," Busch said with a smile as he surveyed the crumpled bumpers. "I guess I need to go see The King and apologize."
• Best Old School NASCAR Sighting -- Thursday's Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon at Cipriani. While modern stars collected fat checks, some classic racers got their moment in the spotlight. Bill France Jr. received the Myers Brothers Award posthumously and the ever-elegant Betty Jane France accepted on behalf of her late husband. Meanwhile, soft-spoken car owner and engine genius Robert Yates had the entire room weepy-eyed as he gave what amounted to his farewell speech, as did outgoing Penske Racing prez Don Miller.
• Best New School NASCAR Sighting --Joey Logano, NASCAR Grand National East champion. The 17-year-old was in town with all of NASCAR's regional and touring champs. Don't worry if you've never heard of him, you will. Already under contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, Mark Martin says the Connecticut kid is "the real deal" and Tony Stewart says "he's the best short track racer in the country -- well, other than me."
• Best Scheduling Move -- Moving the Myers Brothers ceremony from a Friday morning breakfast to a Thursday afternoon lunch. In the past it was hard to get the drivers to show up because they were too hung over from the night before. The good news -- they showed. The bad news -- they still looked pretty hung over.
• Worst Scheduling Move -- Why start the festivities at 9 p.m. ET? By the time Johnson finally got his trophy, the entire East coast TV audience was nestled all snug in their beds. Besides, the best part of the night for those actually in attendance isn't the formal ceremony, it's hitting the Champion's Ball afterward -- so why make everyone wait?
And to think, some dare to say that NASCAR's season finale should be moved to Vegas, or, even worse, Charlotte, where they held the ceremony before moving up the coast and uptown in '81.
I say we keep it right where it is. The Waldorf-Astoria has been the residence of Franklin Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Louis Armstrong, Douglas McArthur, Bugsy Siegel, even the King of Zamunda. There's something cool about a kid from El Cajon getting to do the same for one week out of the year.
Only next time, let's let him open up that Chevy in the middle of Times Square.
Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."