NASCAR honors many this week

So Champion’s Week has begun in Las Vegas and will culiminate with Tony Stewart being officially crowned the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champ on Friday, live on SPEED.

I think NASCAR does a really good job of making the entire week special for the fans who attend.

Driving the stock cars down the Vegas Strip is really something special. I like how they get the fans involved. I like how the other 11 Chase contenders are involved and get exposure for their great seasons.

They have big-name celebrities like Reba McEntire and Kid Rock as part of the awards show. I think that show does a lot not only to put the well-deserved spotlight on our champion, Tony Stewart, but on the sport as a whole. Let’s face it, we have the long and hard season. I think it does a lot to recognize those folks who have sacrificed blood, sweat and tears all season long.

Now from back in the day, I still take a lot of pride in the fact that our 1981 Dew crew with Darrell Waltrip as our driver was the first team to go to New York City when the NASCAR Awards Banquet was moved there. I still laugh at how a lot of us walked around simply staring at how tall the buildings were. Some of us had never seen buildings that tall, and a lot of the team members had never been to a city that big before. It really was like “Country comes to the Big Apple.”

Also, stop and reflect on how far we have come with the awards banquet overall. It used to be staged in a hotel in Daytona. Then it was held in the Starlight Room in the Waldorf Astoria. From there it expanded to the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf. While others thought he had lost his mind, NASCAR president Bill France Jr. had the foresight to know that the exposure NASCAR would get from being in a market the size of New York City would help grow the sport.

As the sport continues to grow and evolve, so has the awards banquet. Its new home has been in Las Vegas for the past few years and its popularity there continues to grow.

The sense of pride is a really strong emotion that I remember the most. I was on Cale Yarborough’s teams when we won the championships in 1976, ’77 and ’78. Then, of course, I was with DW in 1981, ’82 and again in ’85. That head table is what everyone strives for over our long, hard season. If you get there, that means you are the best of the best.

We all know that Tony Stewart won two championships driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Just imagine the pride and satisfaction Tony will be feeling Friday night in Las Vegas when it sinks in that not only has he won the championship as a driver but also as an owner now. Also don’t forget that Tony has never been honored as the champion in Las Vegas, so this will be another first for him.

There’s also a certain amount of pride by being the one that finally stopped the championship dominance of Jimmie Johnson. I mean, it doesn’t get any sweeter than being the guy who knocks the king off the hill. Being the competitor he is, Tony probably will enjoy that aspect of his championship for a long, long time.

Like we always tell you, to be the best, you have to beat the best. Well, Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team did that, and Friday night in Las Vegas, they will reap the reward for all the hard work that made them the best.