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Archive for Thursday, November 24, 2005

Respect, not trophies, is the mark of a champion

November 24, 2005

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As much as winning a championship means to a Nextel Cup driver, winning respect means infinitely more.

The money, even the $5.8 million or so that Tony Stewart will collect for winning the 2005 championship, will be spent. And even as much as racers love trophies, the biggest ones are only symbols to celebrate what a driver and his team have accomplished. And they're hard to carry around, too.

Regard from your peers, however, is hot coffee on a cold morning. You drink it in and it warms you from the inside out.

After Stewart had wrapped up his second career championship Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, becoming just the 14th driver in history to win more than one title in NASCAR's top series, he could have opened a Starbucks.

"Tony Stewart, in my eyes, is the greatest race-car driver I've watched drive in this era," Mark Martin said. "A.J. Foyt might have been that when I was a little boy, but Tony Stewart is my driving hero."

Words like that from Martin are not faint praise. Martin has always been one of the most widely respected drivers among the other drivers. He's never won a Cup championship, but his fourth-place finish this year gives him 12 career top-five finishes in the standings with one more shot at a crown next year.

Martin was not alone in praising Stewart, either.

"I just think Tony Stewart is a great race-car driver," said Jeff Gordon, who as a four-time champion is the only active driver with more titles than Stewart. "He's capable of making a race team better than it is. He brings a lot to the table, and he's good at a bunch of different racetracks.

"I do think that when you win more than one, it puts you in an elite group and you're going to be looked upon differently. ... And he's capable of winning more."

Stewart seemed genuinely touched.

"Any time great drivers like that speak highly of you like that, that's probably the greatest honor in auto racing that you can have," he said. "For your peers to have that confidence in you and that respect for you ... that's better than any trophy I've ever received in my life."

Gordon and Martin both praised Stewart for the strides that he has made in containing a temper that had, in past seasons, sometimes gotten the best of the 34-year-old from Indiana.

"I said (last week) that either the therapy is working or he's learned through experience," Gordon joked. "Whichever it is, it's working for him."

In the same race where Stewart clinched his second title, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd ran the final races of their full-time Cup careers.

Sunday's race could have been Martin's final Cup curtain call, too, had car owner Jack Roush not talked him into taking one more year for the team. If it had been, would Martin have roughed up teammate Greg Biffle more in their side-by-side battle on the final lap that Biffle wound up winning?

Martin wondered about that, too, but the answer is most likely no. Even as important as a win in your last race might be, respect means even more than that.

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