Tony Stewart crowned champion in Las Vegas
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.
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.
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