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Saturday, December 3, 2011
NASCAR needs a champ like Tony Stewart


LAS VEGAS -- If you missed the start of Friday night's Sprint Cup banquet at the Wynn Las Vegas, you missed one of the funnier moments of the week, one of the funnier moments of any celebration involving NASCAR's champion.

If you missed the start, you missed one of the best examples of why Tony Stewart is great for the sport.

Jimmie Johnson
Five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, left, caused an uproar when he walked onstage and to the head table when the Sprint Cup champion was introduced.

On a night that was supposed to be all about him, a night of pomp and ceremony, Stewart convinced Jimmie Johnson to walk out on the stage and go to the head table when the champion was introduced -- just like Johnson had the past five years when he actually won the title.

The look of confusion on Johnson's face was priceless.

The reaction of the crowd was priceless.

It happened because Stewart was more interested in entertaining and collecting a good laugh than he was wrapped up in himself like you might see others be. Had NASCAR not called the three-time champion to the Vegas "hauler" before the event, it would have been funnier.

It would have been funnier than Jeff Gordon break-dancing a day earlier at the After The Lap event.

"I had an Elvis suit I was going to throw on and come out with," Stewart said afterward. "[NASCAR chairman] Brian [France] thought that might be a little too risky for an awards ceremony."

Stewart is all about risk. He took a huge risk when he left the comforts of Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2008 season to become the owner/driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. He took huge risks all race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, going three- and four-wide to make passes to get to the front for the win he would need to steal the title from Carl Edwards.

Had NASCAR's chairman not vetoed the Elvis costume, who knows how many more risks we would have seen at the banquet?

"He told me he only got to do about half of what he wanted to do," Johnson said.

It was a fun ending to a fun championship run, one that began at the onset of the Chase with a struggling Stewart saying he would be a "total bumbling idiot" if he took home the title.

During his speech Friday night, Stewart reminded us that he wasn't married like many champions, but that he had a hot date in the elderly mother of SHR co-owner Gene Haas, adding, "I like cougars."

He took several shots at the length of Edwards' second-place acceptance speech -- just shy of 10 minutes -- in which the runner-up thanked everyone but the banquet room help.

"I fight hard in the race car every week," said Stewart, who had to fight for five wins in the 10 Chase races to beat Edwards in a tiebreaker. "We like to have a good time. I'm looking forward to finally going home and have fun with my friends."

Which will include?

"A lot of pool. A lot of Schlitz. I'm sure there is a deer that is going to be pretty upset over the next few days, too," Stewart said as he anticipated his return to Columbus, Ind.

Naturally.

Stewart as champion will be great for the sport. That he doesn't take himself too seriously as we saw on Friday will endear him to many fans.

"This year, I've never seen a more laid-back and happy Tony Stewart in the Chase," said Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate. "Before that, he was an emotional wreck. He was struggling."

The only thing Stewart struggled with on Friday was convincing NASCAR to let him have more fun with his wild ideas.

"Getting called to the [NASCAR] trailer after the season for doing something stupid didn't seem right," Stewart said. "I thought I'd better end this all on a good note."

He did.