Budget-conscious Champions Week a sign of the times

Jimmie Johnson was the center of attention Wednesday after ringing the opening bell at the NYSE. AP Photo/Richard Drew

NEW YORK -- The clocks in the New York Stock Exchange were winding toward the bottom of the hour on Wednesday ... 9:29:22, 9:29:37. The traditional hand clapping from the crowded trading floor intensified in anticipation of the opening bell.

Slam! Jimmie Johnson hit the button to set off the ring from the balcony overlooking this sea of computers and neon lights.

At 9:29:48.

He couldn't help himself. The owner of the past three Sprint Cup titles in the No. 48 Chevrolet of Hendrick Motorsports is a bit superstitious when it comes to numbers.

But some numbers Johnson can't control with the push of a button, such as the Dow that opened 120 points down and the overall poor economy that has put a damper on almost everything in the nation's largest city -- including the champion's weeklong celebration.

"It's kind of hard to have a party in the midst of a lot of misery," said Johnson's car owner, Rick Hendrick. "And not misery so much, but uncertainty."

To its credit, NASCAR has throttled back this party. With employees being laid off by the hundreds back home in the Charlotte area, the banquet will have less fanfare than any in more than a decade.

Ford canceled its pre-banquet party and Chevrolet its post-banquet party. Dodge representatives aren't here at all.

NASCAR invited only employees absolutely necessary to put on the event and informed the rest who'd looked forward to the season-ending perk that they'd be staying home. Many of those attending will stay fewer days to save money on hotel rooms.

The governing body also canceled the parade of the top 10 drivers in their noisy stock cars around Times Square because it was becoming too expensive with all the political tape necessary to pull it off.

"No doubt about it," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said when asked whether NASCAR made a conscious effort to trim costs.

The biggest impact may be seen Friday night in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, where Hunter estimates at least 150 fewer people than usual will attend the three-hour banquet. Many of those are sponsors, which are looking to trim costs.

"You want to celebrate what you've achieved, but I think throttling back is not a bad idea," Hendrick said.

Hunter says the state of the economy is so dire that officials will meet at some point after this week to discuss whether it makes sense to spend the several million dollars it takes to bring the banquet here.

Hendrick considered cutting back the number of people he typically brings to the banquet, but opted to move forward as planned because "these guys earned it" after helping Johnson become the second driver in the history of the sport to win three straight titles.

Fortunately, he received "sizable" discounts on hotel rooms because business is down.

"It was a totally different attitude," Hendrick said. "It's kind of nice to feel like they want you."

The attitude is different all around this city, where the cab industry is down 50 percent and businesses are locking doors on what seems like every street corner. Hendrick suggests the banquet be moved to Charlotte and built around the Hall of Fame that will open in 2010.

"It's very expensive in New York," Hunter said. "I'm sure we'll look at it after this banquet."

Hendrick, one of the largest automobile dealers in the country, has seen many ups and downs in the economy during the past 30 years. He says this one, without a doubt, is the worst.

"This time, the economy was in such high gear ... it didn't just slow down," he said. "It just fell off the end of the world. Every business. We went to a restaurant the other night, and we were like one of three couples in the whole place at 7 o'clock."

Hendrick is nervous, particularly after Congress recently rejected the bailout proposal for Detroit's big three automakers -- General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. He believes the government wants to see the auto dealers fail, saying he was embarrassed at the way the manufacturers were unloaded on by politicians.

But Hendrick believes that the manufacturers will remain in the sport in some fashion and that one day they'll be strong again.

Johnson is nervous as well, as a driver and the owner of a dealership. As a driver, he knows that if General Motors has to declare bankruptcy, the domino effect could impact the financial support it takes for him to make a run at a fourth straight title.

"How are you going to pay for marketing if you file for bankruptcy?" he asked.

Such questions taint the mood at practically every stop of this victory tour, from Johnson's being honored by the March of Dimes at a Wednesday luncheon to the informal gathering he attended at Foley's NY Pub & Restaurant.

The ringing of the opening bell definitely had a different feel than the past few years.

"It's different in the sense that the mood is somber," said Jason Weisberg, a trader for Seaport Securities. "But when somebody like Jimmie Johnson comes down or a champion from another sport, it's a welcomed distraction.

"It gives people something to smile about."

Johnson tried to lighten the mood during his entire trip to the Exchange. When NYSE chairman Duncan Niederauer made him sound more pure than the Pope, the champion jokingly responded, "Maybe I should shoot myself in the hip," an obvious jab at New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress.

He continued to have fun by ringing the bell 12 seconds ahead of schedule despite warnings of "Oh, don't do it."

"Somebody [they told me] hit it like 30 seconds early and it kept ringing and ringing and ringing and frustrated everybody," Johnson said. "The CEO was like, 'Jimmie, if you do it, you might get booed.'"

He didn't get booed. And at the end of the day there were a few more smiles.

The Dow was up 172 points.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.