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Tony Stewart crowned champion in Las Vegas

All Smiles As Champion’s Week Comes To A Close
Saturday, December 03, 2011

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Tony Stewart with his trophy
Getty Images for NASCAR
Tony Stewart had already shocked the racing world once this year by coming from seemingly nowhere to win the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

He thought about doing it again Friday night to open the NASCAR awards ceremony in the grand ballroom at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel.

"I had an Elvis suit I was going to throw on and come out with -- but NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France thought that might be too risky at an awards ceremony," Stewart said. "Getting called to the NASCAR trailer after the season for doing something stupid didn't seem right. I thought I'd better end this all on a good note."

And so he did in true Las Vegas showmanship style, even without the Elvis suit. Stewart's championship season was celebrated during an elaborate event hosted by entertainer Reba McEntire that featured musical performances not only by her, but also by Kid Rock, the Jersey Boys and Ella Mae Bowen.

Tony Stewart makes his acceptance speech
Getty Images for NASCAR
But make no mistake. This was almost all about Smoke.

One day after picking up $360,000 in contingency awards at the Myers Brothers luncheon, Stewart picked up a check worth $5.792 million from Sprint for capturing the third Cup championship of his storied career. He also won titles in 2002 and 2005.

The ceremony capped a frenetic week in which Stewart and his No. 14 Chevrolet team were the toast of the town.

"It's obviously an honor to be up there," Stewart said of being front and center on the championship dais that had been occupied the previous five years by Jimmie Johnson and his team. "To be up there and getting your awards, it's somewhat of a surreal moment. It's the first time all week I've gotten to sit down in one spot for more than 10 minutes. And it was nice to be up there on the stage with all the people who really helped make it happen for us."

Stewart won his latest championship by winning half of the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races. He accomplished this after he had gone winless over the first 26 pre-Chase races -- but suddenly saw his season rocket in precisely the right direction once he won the Chase-opening race at Chicagoland and followed it up a week later with yet another victory at New Hampshire.

"This year in general I've never seen a more laid-back and happy Tony Stewart in the Chase. Before that, he was an emotional wreck and struggling," said Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet and teammates with Stewart at SHR. "But what that win at Chicago did for him entirely changed the mentality of that team and the entire organization. It turned them around to be successful. It proved that they could do it. ... That was huge."

In winning his third title, Stewart joined an elite group of three-time Cup champions: David Pearson, Lee Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough -- all NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees.

"The other drivers I'm with who have three ... it's like which one doesn't belong. Those guys are great champions and icons of the sport, so I'm very honored to be in that group," Stewart said.

Stewart also won just three years after partnering with long-time NASCAR owner Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing. He was careful to thank Haas for taking him on as an ownership partner prior to the 2009 season.

"I'm proud of Gene. He wanted to make a change and he wanted to take a big step toward doing that. He took a risk to do what we all did together -- but obviously it paid off big after three years of hard work," Stewart said. "I'm very happy to be celebrating this with him. Through it all, he's always kept his chin up and worked hard. He gives us everything we need to do our jobs right, and I'm glad to see him get some success out of this."

During his acceptance speech -- after he had been presented with the championship trophy, the hefty check from Sprint and a commemorative diamond watch from France -- Stewart also took time to lavish praise on runner-up Carl Edwards, the driver with whom he battled throughout the Chase. Stewart had to win the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim the championship via tiebreaker (by virtue of his five race wins on the season to just one by Edwards).

Edwards said later that he appreciated it, but hoped only to use it as motivation to be the one in Stewart's shoes in the champion's seat at next year's ceremony.

"It was like going to the dentist. Sitting there [Friday] night was like going through surgery that you know you need to have -- but that doesn't make it fun," Edwards said. "I hope it motivates me and inspires me and helps me. I didn't expect it to be that difficult to sit through all night."

Meanwhile, Stewart was having a blast -- as it should have been. As it turned out, he didn't even need the Elvis suit to have a good time.

He pledged to put the pedal to the metal in pursuit of yet another championship in 2012, hoping for a return to the place of honor he occupied Friday night.

"You never quit, you never stop thinking you can win. You never stop thinking you have a shot to keep winning championships," Stewart said. "And the day that you think that is the day you should probably look for something else to do. You're always looking for more -- and that includes championships."

Not that he's all that keen on giving another lengthy thank-you speech.

"I'm glad I get to put a helmet on every week instead of having to stand up in front of a crowd and give a speech like that all the time," Stewart said. "But it's an honor to stand there after you've heard nine guys go in front of you and talk about what a great season you had -- knowing that all nine guys are perfectly capable of being in the same position we were in any given year."

Each crew member from the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet team lined up inside the media room at the Wynn Las Vegas where championship photos were being taken.

Each waited his turn to pose with the gleaming NASCAR Sprint Cup Series trophy from Tiffany & Co. – and the boss, new three-time series champion, Tony Stewart.

Stewart’s smile never vanished, even as the number of shots from Friday’s Champion’s Week finale crept into the hundreds. Why? Well, for one, these were his guys, and Stewart had said that this final night of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion’s Week was all for his team. And two, he was having too good a time to do anything BUT smile.

“This is by far the most fun from start to finish of any championship week I’ve ever been a part of,” Stewart said prior to tonight’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony, the official end to Champion’s Week in Las Vegas. “I love Vegas a lot. There’s just so much you can do, so much to see.”

This week was an eventful and memorable one for Stewart. He started the week on Tuesday, running through a number of media hits, including the Landmark Photo Shoot which including photos taken at the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, the iconic lion at the MGM Grand Hotel and, finally, the Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay. To view and download the photos from Tuesday’s shoot, click here.

Wednesday began with an honor befitting a champion: a call from the President of the United States Barack Obama congratulating him on his impressive feat. Stewart’s roll continued later in the day, as he and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman won a NASCAR-themed version of the Newlywed Game, which was held on Fremont Street for the fans.

On Thursday, Stewart took home four awards at the annual NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Luncheon before taking part in a number of fan-focused events: the NASCAR Victory Lap, the NASCAR After The Lap, and the Stewies – a light-hearted awards show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Friday evening’s awards ceremony featured a star-studded entertainment lineup, with host Reba, and performances by Kid Rock, Ella Mae Bowen and Broadway sensation the Jersey Boys. The winner of the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award was also be announced during the ceremony.

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