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Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Updated: November 26, 5:53 PM ET
Tony Stewart the new face of NASCAR

By David Newton
ESPN.com

No doubt NASCAR got the Chase it wanted -- two heavyweight contenders battling until the final lap for the win and a points battle so tight that when the dust settled at Homestead-Miami Speedway it went to a tiebreaker.

No doubt Tony Stewart will be a popular champion based on merchandise sales that consistently have the three-time champion ranked among the top five drivers behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon the past few years.

But did NASCAR get the champion it wanted?

Stewart
Tony Stewart is a little rough around the edges, but he moves the meter with NASCAR Nation.

Corporate NASCAR, that is.

No doubt Stewart is a solid break from the clean-cut, corporate image it had the past five years with Jimmie Johnson. Stewart is an old-school, cheap beer-drinking driver with all the bravado and moxie of heroes past, an owner/driver like the sport was born on.

He represents the bad-boy image that the hardcore fans seem to love. He'll say things that will leave your jaw hanging, as he did several times after Sunday night's finale.

Exhibits A, B and C:

• When asked about all the fun he had "poking" at Edwards the past few weeks, Stewart interrupted and said, "I don't poke Carl. I made that real clear. I like women."

• When asked about the future of crew chief Darian Grubb, who was told five races into the Chase his services wouldn't be needed in 2012, Stewart said, "I know what the status is for the rest of the night. ... I'm going to get him drunk. Tomorrow, if we can just pick our heads up off the floor without throwing up, I'm going to be extremely happy."

• When asked what he planned to name the 400-horsepower boat he earned with the championship, Stewart said, "I just hope I don't get so screwed up tonight that I find the keys by accident and try riding it around on the lake on the backstretch."

Stewart can be funny and charming in a crude sort of way that may bring back some old fans who grew tired of what they thought the well-spoken Johnson represented. He'll probably have the audience at the Dec. 1 banquet in Las Vegas laughing to the point of tears with his quick, edgy and saucy wit.

Short term, at the very least, NASCAR won in a big way.

But is this the image NASCAR -- corporate NASCAR -- really wanted? Needed?

Stewart's version of charming often makes executives cringe. Some will wonder just how politically incorrect he'll be at the banquet before somebody gets offended.

He made a reference to porn star Ron Jeremy last week that had Edwards blushing.

So would the sport have been better off with a clean-cut, water-chugging champion like Edwards? Would it have been better off with a champion who is married to a doctor, promotes his sponsors in such an effortless way you sometimes don't know he's doing it and is such a physical specimen that he has appeared on the cover of fitness magazines?

Would it have been better to have a driver who is willing to do anything and everything to push the sport instead of one who does what he wants pretty much when he wants?

Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards is a sponsor's dream: clean-cut, articulate ... oh, and he can wheel a race car.

Would it have been better to have a driver who always says the right thing, who goes out of his way to avoid controversy? A driver who reads Kipling?

When a question to Stewart began with the phrase "a provincial question," Stewart interrupted and said, "You have to use small words. I have no idea what kind of question that means."

Stewart talks trash.

Edwards takes out the trash.

Even Stewart admitted after weeks of track smack that Edwards is too polite and nice to get drawn into his mind games, that he hopes everybody "respects Carl for the person that he is."

He admitted he couldn't have asked for "a better guy" to beat for the title, reminding us that Edwards was the first to congratulate him and tell him to make sure he enjoys the moment.

"There's been a lot of things that have happened that make you go, 'Is there sincerity involved in what he says?' " said the 40-year-old Stewart, who once compared Edwards to the sneaky Eddie Haskell character from the old "Leave it to Beaver" television series. "But there's no cameras there when he said that. He just came and talked to me driver to driver, and that means a lot and it shows who he is as a person."

That in many ways was the image NASCAR wanted -- a fresh face, somebody who hasn't won a title like Stewart, somebody who will draw in the new and younger fan.

Edwards is Hollywood. He is Wall Street. He is the Tom Brady of motorsports, able to transcend markets few can. He is all the stuff corporate NASCAR wants to look like.

He also has more time to be the face of the sport than Stewart, who has to split his days between being an owner and a driver, as we saw earlier in the week when he had to go from a national conference call to a board meeting to discuss his crew chief situation.

Long term, Edwards may have been what NASCAR really wanted.

Short term, though, Stewart was just what the sport needed.

"Hopefully, no matter who it was this is a shot in the arm our sport needed," Stewart said. "Looking at TV ratings and attendance numbers [that are up], hopefully it is a time we are starting the road to recovery.

"I don't know if we're going to be responsible for it by winning a championship, but we hope it continues to go in the direction it's going right now."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.