(Tony Stewart speaks during the Sprint Cup Series Champion's Week Awards Ceremony.)
The final piece of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season was put into place Friday night when Tony Stewart was officially honored as champion during the annual awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
Stewart claimed his third career Sprint Cup title in dramatic fashion winning five of the ten races inside the Chase for the Sprint Cup and won the championship in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.
Sprint CEO Dan Hesse presented Stewart with a check for $5.8 million for winning the championship.
"I am privileged to be among those recognizing Tony Stewart and the number 14 team for their third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship – joining the ranks of legendary drivers Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Lee Petty, who all hold three Cup titles," said Hesse, in the wake of an earlier announcement that Sprint will remain as series sponsor through the 2016 season. "Tony’s down-to-the-last second duel with Carl Edwards was a stunning example of the competitive spirit that drives the sport and why we love NASCAR.”
The presentation was held at the Wynn Hotel and featured the top ten drivers in the final point standings accepting honors and checks from the end of season Sprint Cup point fund. Performances by host Reba McEntire, Kid Rock and the cast of “Jersey Boys” highlighted the proceedings, which culminated with Stewart’s championship acceptance speech.
When it was over Stewart reflected on the busy week spent in Las Vegas with the other eleven Chase drivers.
“It’s been a fun week,” Stewart said. “It’s been fun to be around these guys and not compete, to just enjoy it. To be up there 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.”
Despite enjoying the honor as well as the spectacle of what NASCAR’s “Champion’s Week” has become, Stewart said he’s ready to get back to his full-time job of driving a stock car.
“I’m really glad I get to put on a helmet and get in a car every week versus having to get up in front of a crowd like that,” Stewart said. “But it’s an honor to hear nine guys talk about how good a job you did, knowing those guys could be in the same position we’re in in any given year. It’s an honor to hear all that.”
During his acceptance speech, Stewart tipped his cap to Edwards and the incredible championship battle.
“I remember hearing the comment that you said to your wife about that if you lost the race, you would be the best loser NASCAR’s ever had,” Stewart said to Edwards. “Buddy, I can promise you, you’re a winner. You’re never going to be a loser. I appreciate the run that we had and most of all, I appreciate that you brought out the best in both of us.
“That was an awesome championship battle that I will never forget the rest of my life.”
Stewart continued his laid back approach that was evident the entire Las Vegas week. He was joined at the head table by his entire team including co-owner Gene Haas and his mother.
"I know everybody has talked about their wives and I don’t’ have a wife but I’ve got a really hot date tonight," Stewart cracked." And that’s Gene’s mom, Margaret. What can I say? I like cougars. … No, I’m kidding.”
As for the immediate future, the three-time champion plans to enjoy some down time in the off-season before getting back to work in defense of his title, which will include working with new crew chief Steve Addington, who was brought in from Penske Racing to replace Darian Grubb atop the war wagon.
“I’m going to spend a lot more time in Charlotte this winter,” Stewart said. “We have a lot of stuff to do to get ready for Danica’s (Patrick) program. You can stand here and be the last guy to go up and get an award, but if you don’t start now working for next year, you could very easily not even be in the running.”
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