Stewart Sets Tone of Champion's Week
He stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing craps. He joked about his waistline and his uncanny ability to pick up women. He pocketed check after check after check, the next almost always worth more than the previous one, and then spent a lot of that cash by bringing all 150 employees of Stewart-Haas Racing to Sprint Cup Champion's Week, and throwing a blowout after-party for everyone who was invited to Friday night's awards ceremony at Wynn Las Vegas.
This week has always been about the winner of NASCAR's premier division, has been since the sanctioning body began feting its champion in an extravaganza that began in New York before moving to the Nevada desert three years ago. But there was something about this week, this place, and this champion that fit together as seamlessly as a driver sliding into a cockpit, something about Stewart that helped the past few days gleam with a little extra enthusiasm and energy. Part of it was surely the newness, a different champion after five years of Jimmie Johnson. But part of it was also the champion himself, who seemed made for this kind of environment, and who placed his stamp all over the past week.
The whole of Champion's Week almost seemed to take on Stewart's identity, becoming a parade of wise cracks and ribald one-liners that lasted from a "Newlywed Game" themed fan appearance Wednesday on Fremont Street until the final notes played by the band in the Wynn ballroom Friday night. No question there were a few heavy moments, none more so than when Stewart's outgoing crew chief, Darian Grubb, struggled to keep his emotions under control while being honored at Thursday's National Motorsports Press Association/Myers Brothers awards luncheon. But for the most part it was fun, it was irreverent, it was loose, and it all took a cue from a driver who seemed nothing like the bear he can sometimes be at the race track.
"I don't know how he's kept up with it," Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, said Friday night after his speech. "I don't know if I've had enough energy to do what he's done, looking at his schedule, seeing the things that he's done. But adrenalin is an amazing thing. It's like when you get out of the race car, it's hard to sleep that night. He's probably had that adrenaline rush ever since he got out of the car at Homestead."
Homestead-Miami Speedway was where Stewart clinched the championship with his race win late last month. It's been Tony's world ever since, beginning this week at the "Newlywed Game" takeoff on historic downtown Fremont Street -- hosted by Bob Eubanks himself -- when Stewart accused Newman of burping through meetings, and Newman retorted by referring to the champion as the hairiest man alive. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Stewart-Haas pairing won the event, given that Stewart's quick wit can be as devastatingly effective in a public setting as it can be when he's bantering with reporters after winning a race.
It wasn't all light-hearted. Grubb, who was replaced by Steve Addington at the end of the season despite winning the title, struggled at times to get through his speech after being honored as championship crew chief during the Myers Brothers event. The crowd at the Wynn turned silent as NASCAR honored those members of its community who had been lost over the previous year, a list that included Russ Wallace -- father to Rusty, Mike, and Kenny -- as well as two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon. And there was one notable absence: that of Rick Hendrick, who won the past five titles as a car owner and supplies engines and equipment to Stewart's team. Hendrick remained at home in North Carolina recovering from injuries suffered in an aircraft crash landing on Oct. 31.
But those moments were few and far between in a week that was dominated by the always-smiling visage of the newly-minted three-time champion. Nowhere was that more evident than Thursday afternoon during the After the Lap at the Hard Rock, where the top 12 drivers took part in a needling question-and-answer session that included plenty of playful verbal digs and pokes. Stewart was absolutely in his element, dominating the event like he dominated the Chase, leaning back in his chair and letting fly with one remark after another that had the sellout crowd in hysterics.
Pity poor Chase first-timer Brad Keselowski, who mentioned that he lived on the outskirts of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s property. "Is that the caretaker's house? Are you in charge of mowing the lawn?" Stewart said. Stewart also mentioned that prior to the Victory Lap, the parade of show cars down the Strip, he had to change into his firesuit next to famously buff series runner-up Carl Edwards. At first, Stewart feigned embarrassment. Then came the truth: "I'm out here working hard to represent all the fat kids in America," he said.
He was needled by the host about famously dropping his "deadweight" -- which turned out to be the female variety -- prior to his torrid run through the Chase. "It worked," Stewart deadpanned. When the three-time champion and famous bachelor was reminded about all the single women in Las Vegas, he appointed Johnson and Jeff Gordon as his selection committee, and joked that any 8x10 glossies should be sent to them.
"I've learned a lot about a lot of you guys this week," Stewart said during his speech Friday night. "I've learned that Jimmie Johnson shaved his legs to be on the swim team, and never swam. Jeff Gordon is an awesome breakdancer. If I ever find the picture of you in those parachute pants, it's going to cost you a lot."
Indeed, the carefree spirit of Stewart so pervaded this week that the four-time champ was even convinced to bust out one of the breakdancing moves he used to practice while in high school. "I'm usually reluctant to do it in public. And when I do it, there's usually a lot more alcohol involved," Gordon said Friday after his speech. "But it was a part of my life. I won't say I was any world-class breakdancer, but I was pretty darn good."
It was that kind of week, one where Stewart received the key to the city, pocketed $360,000 in contingency awards during the Myers Brothers event Thursday, and then handed the big check for $5.8 million on Friday night. Even before that, he was raking it in. Stewart pocketed a fistful of chips after one long night at the craps table, helped by a 45-minute winning roll from, of all people, Johnson. The weather was sometimes cool and overcast in Las Vegas the past week, but around Stewart it was perpetual sunshine. Listening to Newman, it's been like that since the start of the Chase -- which was defined not only by Stewart's performance behind the wheel, but also the verbal jabs he directed toward Edwards at every turn.
"He's enjoying himself," said Newman, who joined Stewart's team three years ago. "That's one of the things I said from the very beginning about what we do -- I want to have fun. Three years ago, I said, I want to have fun. He made fun out of the last 10 races. I think that part of it, when it goes easier, it turns everything else a little bit easier."
This week, everything was. Stewart's irrepressible charm, humor, and generosity, which can be overshadowed sometimes in a tense race track environment, were on display at all times. In their speeches Friday night, most of the other drivers thanked their significant others. Not Tony. "I have a really hot date tonight," he said before introducing Margaret Haas, the mother of Gene Haas, with whom he co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing. "What I can say -- I like cougars."
The crowd roared. Stewart tempered the outburst by thanking the grandmotherly Haas for sending him notes after race wins. But he didn't need to. At this Champion's Week in Las Vegas, he could do no wrong.