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Stewart becomes 1st driver/owner champ since 1992

By Mark Long
AP Sports Writer / November 20, 2011

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HOMESTEAD, Fla.—Tony Stewart's third NASCAR championship was much different his first two.

It was historic.

Stewart became the first driver/owner to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki accomplished the feat in 1992. Kulwicki overcame a huge deficit over the final six races. Stewart claimed his third title by becoming the first driver to clinch the championship by winning the season finale.

"It's an honor to be in the same category with Alan Kulwicki," Stewart said. "But Alan did it all on his own. I've got a great co-owner with Gene Haas, and (general manager) Joe Custer helped put all this together with (Hendrick Motorsports owner) Rick Hendrick."

Stewart won Cup championships in 2002 and 2005 while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He stepped out on his own in 2009, teaming with Haas for financial support and getting engines from Hendrick, and delivered the ultimate prize in just his third season.

Stewart became the ninth driver in NASCAR history to win three of more championships, a list that includes Lee Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough.

"I've got the best team in the business and it's just awesome," Stewart said. "I'm so grateful to be able to do this for Gene. He's invested so much in the sport, and for him to have the faith in me to do this, it just takes a lot to do what he's done and I'm glad I could get it done for him."

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CAREER LOW FOR 5-TIME: Jimmie Johnson's problems in the season finale left him with his worst career finish in the Cup standings.

Johnson, who won the previous five championships, had engine problems early in Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and later got spun by David Gilliland.

He ended the race six laps down, finished 32nd and dropped to sixth in the final points. He had never finished lower than fifth since his rookie season in 2002. He also ended the year without a pole for the first time in his 10 full seasons.

He was eliminated from title contention at Phoenix last week, but came to Homestead hoping to end the year on a high note. Instead, he endured all sorts of problems.

Internal engine parts seemed to be the biggest culprit.

"I started getting some warning signs on the way into the pits that it was an internal situation and those internal parts were trying to find a way out," Johnson said. "So we are out of the points -- (was) trying to finish in the top five -- but if we can get on the track and get going, other guys have some trouble, maybe we can get something going there. Just disappointed.

"Sad way to end the season, but it is racing. We will come back next year."

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SPONSOR NEGOTIATIONS: Sprint is deep in negotiations with NASCAR to continue title sponsorship of its top racing series.

The current 10-year deal with NASCAR expires at the end of the 2013 season, but talks on an extension have been ongoing on and Steve Gaffney, vice president of corporate marketing for Sprint, was pleased with the negotiations.

"We're really hopeful we'll have some good news to announce soon," Gaffney said during Sunday's season finale.

The deal began in 2004 with Nextel, which was eventually acquired by Sprint. The series was re-branded the Sprint Cup Series in 2008.

NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps acknowledged renewal talks are progressing.

"We continue to have discussions, and both parties are interested in continuing the relationship," Phelps said.

Gaffney said Sprint has been thrilled with the title race between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, and felt the last month has increased interest in NASCAR.

"It's been the perfect amount of rhetoric," Gaffney said. "The talk has been just right, not too over the top, and it's been an exciting time to follow the series. We couldn't be more excited with how things developed and got to this finale."

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NO BUSCH BASH: Brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch both made the Chase for the championship, and Kyle even opened NASCAR's 10-race title bout atop the standings.

But neither contended.

Kurt finished 11th in the final standings, one spot ahead of Kyle, who was suspended by NASCAR at Texas. Their positions at the bottom of the standings means neither will be eligible to participate on the stage during the season-ending awards ceremony in Las Vegas -- their hometown.

"I've never been so disappointed in my life," Kurt Busch said. "I think I missed a race once my rookie year and this almost tops that."

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PRESIDENTIAL GUESTS: Michelle Obama and Jill Biden visited NASCAR's season finale.

The first lady and the vice president's wife were on hand to honor military troops and families and recognize new commitments by companies planning to hire and train veterans and military spouses. It was part of their Joining Forces program.

The women received a standing ovation at the pre-race drivers' meeting. Obama said NASCAR has been "amazing in terms of its support, not just today but every day for military families."

"These military families are amazing," Obama said. "Days like this just remind them that they do have a country that cares and appreciates what they do, and it means so much to them."

Obama and Biden went from the drivers' meeting to a barbecue for military families. They later served as grand marshals for the finale, delivering those famous racing words: "Gentlemen, start your engines."