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Tony Stewart And Friends Party Las Vegas Style

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, December 3 2011

2011 Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart was the guest of honor in Las Vegas on Friday night. (Photos courtesy of NASCAR)

Accompanied by a “hot date” and 160 team employees, Tony Stewart celebrated his 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship Friday night with equal parts humor and humility.

Stewart, who clinched his third Cup trophy with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20, added a champion’s ring and a check for $5.8-million to his Champion’s Week-long haul during a four-hour ceremony at the Wynn Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

Brian Z. France, NASCAR’s chairman/CEO, handed Stewart his newest ring while Dan Hesse, Sprint’s CEO, presented the check. Hesse also announced that Sprint had extended its title sponsorship rights to NASCAR’s premier series through “at least” the 2016 season.

Co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with partner Gene Haas, Stewart is the first driver/owner to win a Cup championship since the late Alan Kulwicki drove his No. 7 Hooters Ford “Underbird” to the title by a 10-point margin over Bill Elliott in 1992.

“We flew the entire organization out (to Vegas) – which seemed like a really cool idea at the time, until I get the hotel bill tomorrow,” Stewart joked during his acceptance remarks. “That’s coming out of your (Gene’s) half. But I’m so appreciative of everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing. We’ve got a group of diehard racers and it doesn’t matter what kind of background they came from, what form of racing. All they want to do is win. All they want to do is work hard, win races and try to win championships.”

After going 0-for-26 during the “regular season,” Stewart won five of 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races

Tony Stewart is congratulated by runner-up Carl Edwards.

to forge a tie with Carl Edwards atop the final points table at 2,403. Stewart won the championship via a 5-1 advantage in race wins. Stewart, who won Cup championships in 2002 and 2005 with Joe Gibbs Racing, launched SHR in 2009, seven years after the team made its series debut as Haas CNC Racing.

“This has been fun to be your driver, but it’s fun to be your partner, too,” said Stewart, saluting Haas and an organization based in Kannapolis, N.C. “You and your family are awesome. You guys have made us feel like a part of your family. And I know everybody’s talked about their wives (at the podium) and I don’t have a wife. But I’ve got a really hot date tonight – that’s Gene’s mom, Margaret. What can I say? I like cougars.”

Margaret Haas sat next to Stewart at the champion’s table on a stage, while Gene Haas watched as part of the ballroom audience. “Margaret has been our biggest cheerleader at Stewart-Haas since we started and there’s something that I’ve always been grateful for,” Stewart said. “Every week you’ve always sent me a card and it’s always reminded me of the Christmas cards and birthday cards I got from my grandmother, and I thank you. You’re a great leader and you raised a great son.”

Gene Haas said he felt “honored and blessed” to be celebrating the championship given the team’s previous profile as a series back-marker.

“It still doesn’t seem real in a lot of ways, especially in light of the fact that only three short years ago the goal of Haas CNC Racing was simply to stay in the top 35 of points,” Haas said. “And what a struggle that was, week-in and week-out, even though we always invested in the best facilities and equipment we could get. That’s not always enough to win races and especially to contend for championships. I want to thank Joe Custer (team general manager) for designing and executing a winning strategy that in a relatively short time took us to the next level and beyond.

“The key to all that was helping to get Tony Stewart on-board as a partner. I want to thank Tony for his

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and date Amy Reimann pose for cameras.

willingness to see the potential of Haas CNC Racing and taking the risk he did by leaving a secure and successful team to make it all happen.”

Haas also cited fellow-team-owner Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports for his initial and continued support to SHR. Hendrick Motorsports supplied technical support and the Chevrolet engines run by Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman, who finished 10th in the final Chase standings.

“When Joe Custer and I expressed a strong desire to put together a Sprint Cup team, it was Rick who believed in us and helped us get started with Jack Sprague as our driver for the 2001 season,” Haas said. “Thanks to Rick, Haas CNC Racing was born and it’s been an incredible ride ever since. In 2001 we expanded into a brand new race shop that three years later became Stewart-Haas Racing. And here we are in 2001 so incredibly proud and honored to call ourselves Sprint Cup champions for the very first time as a team.

“Tony’s been there twice before but this year he and (crew chief) Darian Grubb and the entire No. 14 team certainly did it in style. That had to be the most epic series of clutch race performances I’ve ever seen. It was great for NASCAR, it was great for the sponsors. Most of all it was great for the fans.”

Friday’s ceremonies provided another emotional moment for Grubb. Prior to October’s Chase race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Grubb learned that his tenure as Stewart’s crew chief would end after the season. Six races and three victories later, Grubb won an improbable championship atop the pit box for Stewart’s No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala. On Nov. 28, SHR confirmed that Grubb would be replaced by Steve Addington as Stewart’s crew chief in 2012. Addington spent the last two seasons as crew chief for Kurt Busch at Penske Racing. Busch, driver of the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge Charger, finished 11th in this year’s Chase.

“My buddy, Darian Grubb – you’ve been here from Day One,” Stewart said. “You started this and you have been the biggest person in helping build this these last three years. Definitely, would not have wanted to do it with anybody else and I’m very grateful that you’ve been my buddy, you’ve been my friend and been a great crew chief for three years. I just can’t say ‘thank you’ enough.”

Grubb collaborated with Stewart on 11 of his career-total 44 Cup wins. “It’s just tough,” Grubb said. “It’s just awkward because we want to enjoy it, but we know things are changing. So we’re trying our

Reba McEntire sings for the crowd at the Sprint Cup banquet.

best to enjoy the championship and everything we’ve earned and deserved and go from there.”

Stewart, a 40-year-old resident of Columbus, Ind., bookended Jimmie Johnson’s five-year run of consecutive championships for Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy, finished sixth in this year’s Chase. Stewart is one of only nine drivers to have won as many as three championships in NASCAR’s 63-year history.

“Obviously, we can’t forget somebody that’s done something that probably never ever will be done in this sport again, and that’s Jimmie Johnson,” Stewart said. “Buddy, I’m really proud of you. I never thought being a set of bookends would be such a gratifying feeling. But what you guys did for five years is amazing. You’re sitting down there – I appreciate you just letting me borrow your chair (on stage) tonight. It’s really a different view from up there. Congratulations again on five great years in a row and I’m sure it’s not going to be the last for you, too.”

Stewart, the 1999 Cup Rookie of the Year, saved some of his kindest words for Edwards, with whom he verbally sparred during the final weeks of the Chase.

“I get to compete with the best drivers in the world and I’m very grateful for that,” Stewart said. “But a big ‘thank you’ to Carl. Carl, you are a class act. I remember a comment of what you said after the race (at HMS) to your wife, that if you lost the race that you were going to be the best loser NASCAR’s ever had. Buddy, I can promise you you’re a winner. You’re never going to be a loser. I appreciate the run we had, and most of all I appreciate that you brought out the best in both of us and that was an awesome championship battle that I’ll never forget the rest of my life.”

Edwards, whose average Chase finish was a record 4.9, equally was gracious in his remarks to Stewart. ”Tony, you did an amazing job,” said Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion. “We raced hard, I mean as hard as two guys can race. And it means a lot to finish second to a guy who’s a champion, who rose to the occasion, had the best Chase of your career – the best Chase anyone probably will ever have. That was just unbelievable. It meant a lot to be able to race with you guys. That was really fun. You are the champion, this is your night and you deserve this.”

Edwards lauded his Roush Fenway Racing crew, led by crew chief Bob Osborne, as “amazing.”

“We did finish second, and I dreaded this,” said Edwards, a 32-year-old resident of Columbia, Mo. “When we left Homestead, I was like, ‘Man, that’s behind us. Road to recovery here.’ And now this is like sitting in the dentist’s chair and going through the whole thing over again. But I’m telling you, I’m

Kid Rock performs at the banquet.

very, very proud of our whole team. I’m proud of the fact that we didn’t lose this championship. We fought hard. We were up against Tony at his best. We were up against a lot of adversity in all different forms and my guys did a great job and we’re really proud of that.”

Edwards, who finished second to Stewart at HMS, was the first driver to greet “Smoke” after his title-clinching victory. In turn, Edwards noted that his wife, Kate, was the first person to meet him after exiting his car.

“Man, I still to this moment haven’t shed a tear over this season and I’m not going to be emotional now,” Edwards said. “But I cannot tell you how much Kate means to me. I’ll tell you how great she is. People come up to me and say, ‘Hey, sorry about that. Must be tough.’ And Kate’s standing there, she nudges me and she goes, ‘Dammit, you tied. You tied!’ I love you for that, Kate.

“I’ll leave you with this. As frustrating as it is to have finished second – to not achieve this dream – we are not stopping. We never, ever give up. We’re motivated next year to do the very best we can. To anybody out there who is working on something – going through something tough, who might not be getting exactly what they want out of life or their endeavors – just rest assured we’re right there with you. We’re going to be fighting hard.”

Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. vice president for performance vehicles and motorsports, accepted the Bowtie’s 35th manufacturer’s championship with 18 wins in 36 events, and 28th driver’s championship.

Stewart’s Champion’s Week started Tuesday, running through a number of media hits, including a Landmark Photo Shoot including photos taken at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, the iconic lion at the MGM Grand Hotel and the Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay.

Wednesday began with a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One. “It’s a huge honor to get a call from the President of the United States,” Stewart said. “I was more nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to hear on the phone very well, being from Air Force One, but they got great service up there. He just congratulated us on a great season. … The First Lady was giving him updates from the track, so I was really proud that he was following our sport and cared enough to call.”

Stewart’s roll continued later in the day, as he and Newman won a NASCAR-themed version of “The Newlywed Game” held on Fremont Street for the fans. “I got the best teammate in the business,” Stewart said of Newman, driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet. “Ryan, you’re a lot of fun. You’re an awesome teammate. I appreciate a teammate who has an engineering degree because when we sit in those debriefs and they use all those big words that I don’t understand Ryan is the one that has to kind of make it ‘cat, hat’… and he uses a chalkboard a lot and I appreciate the visual illustrations.”

The series’ top-12 drivers also hit The Strip for what evolved into one of the most hotly anticipated events of Champion’s Week – the NASCAR Victory Lap. For the third consecutive year, thousands of fans lined the sidewalks to watch the top-12 roar down The Strip. Starting at Planet Hollywood and ending at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, roaring engines and celebratory burnouts smoked the closed streets of Las Vegas.

On Thursday, Stewart also took home four awards at the annual NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Luncheon before participating in a number of fan-focused events including presentation of  “The Stewies” – a light-hearted awards show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, December 3 2011
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