LAS VEGAS (AP) — Tony Stewart thought he was making a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas to play the role of supportive team owner.
After missing the final 15 weeks of the season with a broken leg suffered in a sprint car accident in August, the three-time NASCAR champion had no official reason to attend Thursday's annual Myers Brothers awards ceremony.
So as the ceremony was winding down, Stewart began to alert his pilots it was almost time to make the trip back to North Carolina.
Instead, he heard National Motorsports Press Association President Kenny Bruce describing Stewart in his introduction of the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Myers Brothers Award for contributions to the sport. He made the long walk to the front of the ballroom without the use of a cane as the audience of industry participants rose to give Stewart a standing ovation.
Stewart needed assistance climbing the stairs, but it was the only help he required as he collected his surprise award and warned his competitors he'll be ready for the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.
"It was hard sitting on the sidelines watching, but it gave me a different perspective that I haven't seen in years of what we all do each week," Stewart said in his speech. "It was a lot of fun to sit there on the side and watch you guys do what we do.
"But take this as your warning: I gave you guys (15) weeks off without me. I'll be ready for Daytona and be back kicking your (butts) again, so you guys enjoy it."
The Myers Brothers award was given to Stewart for his role as owner of Eldora Speedway, the half-mile dirt track that hosted the first national NASCAR race on dirt in 43 years when the Truck Series raced there in July.
"It was a lot of fun for us," Stewart said about the Eldora event. "I'm aging in dog years now. It takes a lot of time and effort. You probably won't ever hear me give too many of the promoters in NASCAR a hard time anymore because I know what it's like firsthand.
"To host an event takes a lot of time and effort and work and it takes a great staff to do that. I am very fortunate and blessed to have a good staff at Eldora and just very surprised by this (award). . This is very humbling, to be perfectly honest."
The Myers Brothers Award has been given annually since 1958. It's the second straight year that a current Sprint Cup Series competitor has won; four-time champion Jeff Gordon received the honor last season.
"I don't know of anyone more passionate about what they do than Tony Stewart," NMPA president Kenny Bruce said. "Before an injury sidelined him during the second half of the season, he was on pace to compete in more than 100 races in 2013. Tony eats, sleeps, lives and breathes racing and he understands the importance of the local weekend shows better than most. It's where he came from, and he's never forgotten that or those who made it possible."
Stewart joked winning the award a year after Gordon meant the two drivers "are getting old."
"This sport means a lot to me," Stewart said. "It's not what our purpose is; it's what our passion is. There's no hidden agendas, there's nothing other than passion and desire to do what we do. I was so excited when (NASCAR) asked me about doing the truck race, and to be a part of that and to be a part of history with NASCAR.
"That wasn't the driving force behind it. But when you have time like we have with this injury, and you get time to sit back and think about things, you realize what it means in the big picture. It's just neat to be able to do what we do."
He also joked about receiving an award that is selected by the motorsports press association.
"We've always had the love-hate relationship. There's more love than hate — there's just a few that we hate," joked Stewart, who has had more than his fair share of battles with the media. He added that winning an award decided on people around him weekly "means more to me than any awards voted on by fans."