Tony Stewart was there to take his bows, of course, as series champion. History will record Stewart's accomplishment of taking Gene Haas' doormat team to the title in only three years as one of stock car racing's great accomplishments. A quick Google search will reveal how most of the "experts" called Stewart's decision to leave Joe Gibbs' team a mistake, with one of the ESPN bright lights predicting Stewart would never again make the Chase.
It was obvious to me, and I'm sure everyone else, that Stewart was not going to let anything take away from his personal satisfaction and the joy he shared with his team. It was awkward, though, with outgoing crew chief Darian Grubb sharing the spotlight -- especially after Grubb's emotional speech at Thursday's NMPA Myers Brothers awards luncheon at the Bellagio. He nearly broke down a few times and got a standing ovation afterwards.
A little while later, in a one-on-one interview, I asked Stewart if that had been hard for him to watch. Of course, Tony will forever be regarded as one of America's great true racers, and I know from many of the great drivers I've worked with, separating emotion from the competition is a common quality. "It was an emotional scene," Stewart admitted. Stewart said the tough part is he tries to treat his team members as family but stepping away from the emotion to make the best decision for the overall organization is what he had to do. Remember, Stewart let competition director Bobby Hutchins go last summer, too.
Oh, for the record, I asked Stewart if Homestead was his best win of the year, if his first career World of Outlaws victory was the second. He came out with a big smile and said, "You are right on the money with that."
Las Vegas seems to bring out a happier side of the drivers and Jimmie Johnson said he thought the atmosphere and fun fan activities allowed the drivers to get to know each other a little better on a personal level. That's a good thing. I have to say, though, that there was no doubt to me the two guys who were glad when it all was over with were Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. The format is for a group media avail with the top 10 drivers after the Thursday luncheon. Friday, after the drivers come off stage in the Wynn ballroom, they are brought to a photo and interview area. Carl and Denny both were gracious but their body language and facial expressions were more revealing than their words. It's quite understandable Edwards would have had enough after losing out on the epic Cup tie-breaker race, while Hamlin's disappointing campaign after being touted as a pre-season title contender was one of the year's more important stories. Friday night, after he finished his last interview, Hamlin turned to a NASCAR PR rep and asked, "Is my season finally over now?" I sympathized and told him I hope he enjoys spending the winter months here in my home area of the Valley of the Sun.
NASCAR itself deserved to join Stewart in taking a bow. The Cup season started with the boffo triple of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Daytona 500 pole, Trevor Bayne as the stunning and popular winner of the Great American Race, and Jeff Gordon ending a long winless streak the following week at Phoenix. There were five first-time winners, TV ratings were up, there were some upticks in the key demos, a fantasic finale at Homestead, and Friday night's black-tie gala (with Reba McEntire providing the Big Name entertainment) wrapped with official announcement of Sprint extending its Cup series sponsorship until 2016. (In a classy move, NASCAR remembered Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon during the ceremony.)
Yes, given the economy, there are still attendance issues at tracks like Indianapolis, Michigan, Dover and elsewhere (Phoenix had two announced grandstand sell-outs), and teams -- including Roush Fenway -- continue to struggle for sponsorship. (I asked Matt Kenseth if his No. 17 had anything yet; he said no.) NASCAR President Mike Helton said to me, "We still have work to do."
But no fair-minded observer of the American racing scene can do anything but give NASCAR and it's Cup season the credit it deserves for moving in a positive direction in 2011.
What were the top 10 business and political stories of the year in drag racing? Here's my list in my December "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com:
[ I'll wrap-up the year here next week . . . ]