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Stewart becomes NASCAR's richest champion

12/2/2005

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.