Tony Stewart crowned champion in New York

by Pete McCole

December 2, 2005

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Tony Stewart addresses the crowd in NY City
CIA Stock Photo

Tony Stewart was honored as the 2005 series champion as the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series capped the 2005 season at their annual awards banquet at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Friday night.

Stewart’s winnings for his second series championship include a check for $6,173,633, bringing his season total to a series-record $13,578,168 – besting the previous season high set by Jeff Gordon in 2001.

Stewart’s accolades for the 2005 season included five wins, highlighted by first-time victories at Daytona Int’l Speedway and Indy – Stewart’s hometown track.

“It was a great year, obviously,’ said Stewart. “To able to win the Brickyard, winning a race that had been a lifelong dream of mine, was great and to finally win Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) a championship the right way was something that was huge for us.

It was a more mature and serious Tony Stewart that took the stage on Friday as opposed to his first title run in 2002, which was marred by several on and off-track incidences, earning Stewart an unflattering reputation among his peers and fans alike.

“I’m a happier person, “ said Stewart. “I’ve learned how to deal with a lot of things and, this year, I just wanted myself and my team to have fun.

“We didn’t start racing because we thought we’d be collecting a big check at the end of the season. We did it for the thrill of winning races and, at the time I started racing, wanting my trophy to be bigger than the next guy’s trophy.”

Defending champion Kurt Busch - who missed the final two races of the season after being suspended from Roush Racing following a run-in with police near Phoenix Int’l Raceway last month – surprised many by taking part in the past week’s championship festivities.

Busch, who finished tenth in the Chase for the Nextel Cup despite setting out the last two races, received a warm round of applause as he took the stage, thanking his crew and former car owner Jack Roush.

“Being away from the race track this past month has provided me with time to reflect on my past and think about my future,” said Busch. “I know I’m very fortunate to have the chance to do what I do. NASCAR fans are the greatest, most supportive and most loyal fans in the world, and I will do my best to give them all I have going forward.”

Busch also thanked Roger Penske, who hired Busch to replace the retiring Rusty Wallace in the no. 2 Dodge in 2006, as well as acknowledging Wallace for his outstanding contributions to the sport.

“No driver personifies NASCAR more than Rusty Wallace, and it is truly an honor to have Roger Penske to select me to take over the no. 2 Dodge,” Busch said. “Rusty, you left big shoes to fill. Congratulations on a great career and thank you for what you’ve done for our sport.”

Wallace, the 1989 series champion, finished eighth in the final points standings and received a standing ovation as he took the stage for the final time in his career.

“I used to make fun of Jeff Gordon for getting teary-eyed - called him a wimp and all that. I learned it from Earnhardt,” said Wallace, paying tribute to his friend and seven-time champion the late Dale Earnhardt.

“It’s been a great ride, I’ll tell you what,” Wallace said. “I ended my career the way I believed I could. Making the Chase was really cool. Making it to New York was the proper way to end it.”

One of the night’s lighter moments came as Jeff Gordon was to be honored as the 11th-place finisher in the final points standings.

But instead of the four-time series champion taking the podium, it was comedian Will Ferrell, standing in for Gordon, who was in Paris participating in the International Race of Champions Nations Cup.

Ferrell, currently filming a NASCAR-themed comedy movie, played it up for the crowd in the role of Gordon.

“We did it. I told the guys at the start of the season to screw first (place) and go for 11th,” joked Ferrell. “We set our sights high, but not too high. You know, when you’re 11th, you’re like no. 1 of the rest of everyone else. Do I get a check?”

Kyle Busch, Kurt’s younger brother, was also on hand to accept the 2005 Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the Most Popular Driver Award for the third time.

Stewart also had one more award to accept – his victory in the Brickyard 400 was voted by NASCAR fans as the Most Dramatic Moment of 2005.

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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