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Champ shifting gears

Tony Stewart won't have any problems celebrating his third NASCAR Cup title when the party hits Las Vegas for "Champions Week."

The official schedule was changed because of Stewart's actions the last time he won the title in 2005. A breakfast honoring the champion and some of the other top drivers is now a lunch because Stewart couldn't gather himself out of bed for breakfast back then.

But once the party favors are put away, Stewart will be a busy man trying to gather momentum for the 2012 season.

The Stewart-Haas Racing team has yet to replace its competition director. Most importantly, Stewart and company will need to find a replacement for crew chief Darian Grubb. Confirming speculation that swirled in the week leading up to the finale in Homestead, Fla., Grubb said he won't return. Grubb said he had been told before the Oct. 15 race in Charlotte that he wouldn't be back in 2012.

"It is (baffling) to me, honestly," Grubb said after the race. "We just kept fighting. It did not change anything."

Grubb has been Stewart's crew chief for all 108 races since Stewart-Haas Racing was formed in 2009.

The decision becomes even more perplexing since Stewart won five of the 10 Chase races, and Grubb made a gutsy call to keep Stewart on the track toward the end of the race — a move that likely clinched the championship for Stewart.

Still, there will be no second-guessing, as Stewart-Haas Racing moves forward in the brief offseason.

"We're looking at all our options right now," Stewart said in a teleconference Tuesday. "We'll sit down as a group and try to come up with a decision."

Stewart will be scrambling for much of the offseason before testing starts at Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 12. He flew to Connecticut on Monday morning, just hours after winning the title. He made the appointed rounds at ESPN and then went to New York for more appearances. As of Tuesday, he still had 300 text messages he had not been able to return.

His only down time may be this week when he returns home to Indiana for Thanksgiving.

"I'm looking forward to being able to go home for Thanksgiving," he said. "As much as I'd love to take a break, I still have a lot of things on the to-do list. I'm not really concerned about time off. I've enjoyed being in New York; I've enjoyed being on the ESPN campus Monday. I felt I was part of something really special."

Stewart is likely going to hurt from all the back-slapping over the next few weeks. Some of the historical context includes the fact that he became only the ninth driver to win at least three Cup titles, and the seventh driver to win a Cup title with two teams.

gdiaz@tribune.com

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