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Tony Stewart, Humanitarian? Winner Of Prestigious Award Warrants Closer Look

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When you think of Tony Stewart, "humanitarian" might not be the first word that comes to mind. Maybe not even in the first 10 words.

Stewart's unapologetically abrasive personality is what many people associate with the driver, who is one of NASCAR's most talented but also among the most difficult to like at times.

So when Stewart was announced as the winner of the 2010 NMPA Home Depot Humanitarian Award on Thursday, it may have raised a few eyebrows.

It shouldn't. Regardless of what you think of Stewart at the track, there's no denying his impact off it.

The size and scope of Stewart's "Prelude to the Dream" charity race has made it one of the top fundraising events in NASCAR (with an annual goal of raising $1 million), and the "Smoke Show" fantasy camp at Texas Motor Speedway has raised nearly $700,000 in three years.

Aside from his Tony Stewart Foundation (which benefits critically ill children, injured drivers and endangered animals), Stewart also has a behind-the-scenes reputation for extremely generous acts of kindness – some which are never made public.

As vice president of the NMPA, I was asked to help select this year's nominees for the Home Depot Humanitarian Award. Spending time going through all the submissions, it was obvious Stewart had one of the most compelling cases (along with fellow finalists J.D. Gibbs and Juan Pablo Montoya).

By winning, Stewart earned $100,000 donation for his foundation and joined an elite group of winners (including former Penske executive Don Miller and team owner Richard Childress) who have been recognized for their charitable efforts.

In other words, it's a big deal.

But what exactly is the root of Stewart's generosity, which seems to be in conflict with his at-track persona?

"A lot of it is I didn't grow up in a wealthy family, and there were a lot of people along the way who helped out," he said Thursday after winning the award. "It may have just been someone who gave me $20 and said, 'Hey, here's some money to help you put gas in your car and get to the next race.' It may have somebody who had a kid off to college that said, 'Hey, our daughter's room is pink, but you're more than welcome to stay in it tonight and save yourself from spending money on a hotel room or sleeping in your car.'

"Just little things like that that show you how much people helped us along the way. Now we're finally in a position to turn that around and help others."

Stewart said his drive to raise money for charity was molded further after he arrived in NASCAR and saw how team owner Joe Gibbs, sponsor Home Depot and the sanctioning body itself gave back to their communities.

He named spending time with kids at the Victory Junction Gang Camp and seeing paralyzed people receive new wheelchairs at Darrell Gwynn Foundation events as some of his personal highlights.

"It's just a good feeling to give back like that," he said. "Over the years, you're around a sport that's very generous and it makes you want to do the same thing.

"Once you start doing that and being involved in it, you realize how much that means to you, too."