Stewart becomes NASCAR's richest champion

Updated: December 2, 2005, 8:41 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Tony Stewart's best year in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series reached the bottom line Friday, with the two-time champion setting a record for single-season earnings.

He picked up $6,173,633 from the points fund set up by series sponsor Nextel and NASCAR, and added $517,000 in contingency awards from sponsors. Combined with the prize money earned during the 36-race season, Stewart's total of $13,578,168 breaks the previous mark of $10,979,757 by Jeff Gordon in 2001.

Stewart, who earlier in the day had a migraine headache that caused him to miss a breakfast at which he was to collect several checks from sponsors, was feeling a lot better on stage Friday night during the formal awards ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Stewart is a lifelong racer, a driver who ranks making money below winning races, winning championships and just driving the car.

When told he has now earned $48.4 million in his Cup career, Stewart rolled his eyes and shook his head.

"I'm not going to give the checks back," he said, grinning. "But we didn't start racing because we thought we'd be collecting a big check at the end of the season. We did it for the thrill of winning races and, at the time I started racing, wanting my trophy to be bigger than the next guy's trophy."

The other nine drivers in the second Chase for the championship also were given big checks Friday night, along with 11th-place finisher Gordon and rookie of the year Kyle Busch.

Runner-up Greg Biffle got a points fund check for $2,624,124, while 10th-place Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion, received $1,151,543. Four-time champion Gordon, who didn't attend the ceremony, got $1,075,386, including a $250,000 bonus for finishing 11th.

But the spotlight was mostly on Stewart, who spent the week in New York celebrating his second championship, along with crew chief Greg Zipadelli and team president J.D. Gibbs, son of team owner Joe Gibbs.

Among Stewart's official duties during the week were leading the Chase drivers on Wednesday morning in a caravan of race cars on a drive through the streets of Manhattan -- snaking from Rockefeller Center in a loud parade to the front of the building several blocks away on Park Avenue where NASCAR maintains an office.

"That was really a lot of fun," Stewart said. "Ryan [Newman] did one of the best burnouts I've ever seen, at least on a New York street, and the people really turned out and got excited."

That was Stewart's theme the entire 2005 season: fun.

That was not the case when he won his first championship in 2002. That year, he was often angry and miserable, battling with other drivers, photographers, writers and even fans.

Stewart is the first to admit that at 34 he is considerably more mature than he was three years ago.

"I'm a happier person," he said. "I've learned how to deal with a lot of things and, this year, I just wanted myself and my team to have fun. I owed that to these guys after they hung with me for all these years."

The crew of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet has remained virtually unchanged for Stewart's seven years on the circuit. But Zipadelli said this year was definitely different.

"We worked just as hard and had some ups and downs, but it was mostly fun every week," he said. "It was just a whole different atmosphere and everybody enjoyed it."

Stewart said he also is better prepared to spend next season as the reigning champion, representing NASCAR.

"I always asked in 2002, what exactly is my role?" Stewart said. "But I think it's just doing the same things we do each week; promoting our sport. Just trying to be a figure that everybody respects is probably the hardest part of being a champion. But I think we're up to the test."

On Friday at the Waldorf, the grin on Stewart's face told the story.

"It was just a fun year and this week has been a lot of fun," he said.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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