Stewart Charming Champion
December 7, 2002 | 12:06 A.M. EST
This time, he topped himself, and got plenty of laughs from those who remembered he finished a second straight season on probation after punching a photographer. Stewart pulled a camera from under the podium and began shooting pictures of the cameramen who were photographing him.
"I've just been a regular media darling this week," he said.
And it didn't end there. Making light of his anger management sessions. Stewart poked fun at NASCAR president Mike Helton and pulled out a piece of paper wrapped in a red ribbon.
"Mike said I had to show him I had my anger management certificate to prove I finished the course," he said. "This is it."
Then he turned serious for a moment and addressed the media, some of whom he has refused to deal with in the past.
"I know you've got a job to do," Stewart said. "I promise to do a better job dealing with you guys next year."
Earlier, Stewart said he wasn't in racing for the money. Still, he wasn't about to give back the more than $9 million he received at the awards ceremony.
"This is all great, but I don't care if I win a lot of money at a Winston Cup race or win nothing running a sprint car at some little track. I just want to race," Stewart said.
The 31-year-old Stewart definitely wasn't in his element Friday night as Stewart was handed checks totaling $9,163,761.
That includes $4,305,607 from the season points fund, as well as season earnings and post-season bonus and contingency money. The total raises Stewart's career earnings to just over $20.9 million in four seasons.
"That's just awesome," said Stewart, who has had a whirlwind week of celebration, starting on Monday with a visit with President Bush at the White House.
The hot-tempered driver who has repeatedly gotten into trouble with NASCAR, has smiled a lot this week, happily signing autographs for anyone who approached him and giving interviews readily.
"I've even enjoyed talking with the media," he said, laughing. "I don't think anybody thought they'd ever hear that out of me. But it's all been very relaxing and a lot of fun."
All this doesn't necessarily signal any change in Stewart's ways in 2003.
Late in the 2002 season, as Stewart battled Mark Martin for the title he eventually won by just 38 points, Stewart said that winning a championship would not make him a spokesman for the sport.
On Friday, even as he prepared to accept all the accolades that go with the title, that opinion had not changed.
"To be honest, I still don't feel like I'm a representative or an ambassador for the sport," he said. "I'm just a simple boy from Indiana. I don't want to be a legend or an icon or anything. I just want to be a race car driver, pure and simple.
"But, going through this last week, it's given me more of an appreciation for what's happened this year. It's easier to put it all in perspective."
"You know, by January, this will all be done," he said. "I'm going to put on a new pair of gloves, a new pair of racing shoes and my helmet and go out and race for another championship.
"What I did this season won't make any difference anymore."
During the ceremony, Stewart paid tribute to car owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Greg Zipadelli, engine builder Mark Cronquist and the rest of his team.
"Every person on this team, from Joe on down, contributed to this championship," Stewart said. "I just drove the car."
Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins coach and now a two-time Winston Cup champion owner - Bobby Labonte won in 2000 - praised his driver.
"We knew he would win a championship and I'm glad this team could help him do it," Gibbs said. "I believe Tony is going to win more of them, too."
There were other winners Friday night, too, with the drivers who finished second through fourth - Martin, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon - each collecting more than $1 million.
Stewart came up short of the record $10,879,757 that four-time champion Gordon won in 2001. The $1.086 million he got Friday raised Gordon's career earnings to $51,903,055.
Zipadelli, also winning his first championship, got a bonus from his driver earlier in the day.
"I promised Zippy if we won the championship, I'd buy him a Corvette," Stewart said.
On Friday morning, Stewart presented the keys to a red Corvette to Zipadelli outside a midtown hotel.
"That's the kind of stuff that makes this fun," Stewart said.