HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Report by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Chris Graythen/Getty Images photo —
Kevin Harvick didn’t lead the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings all season long, but he did lead more laps than anyone across 2014.
Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Harvick did more than lead laps, he topped the standings in the one race it truly mattered.
Harvick blasted off of turn four and around fellow title contender Denny Hamlin with eight laps to go in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, using the strength of four fresh tires to pull away before a final caution set up a three lap dash to the checkered flag.
The Bakersfield, California native then held off another Chaser, Ryan Newman, on that final scramble to the finish to not only win the race — his fifth of the 2014 season and 28th of his Cup career — but claim his first Sprint Cup championship in the process by finishing ahead of the rest of the Championship 4 (Newman, Hamlin and Joey Logano).
The title came in Harvick’s first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, moving over to the Tony Stewart and Gene Haas-led operation after 13 years at Richard Childress Racing, ironically the team that he held off to don the crown.
A near-speechless Harvick held back tears when he climbed from his car, citing a team effort as the driving force behind his storybook ending.
“I just really don’t even know what to say,” Harvick said in Gatorade Victory Lane. “That came down to a pit call and I was like, ‘Man, we are in big trouble here,’ and Rodney Childers and all these guys that have put together these teams have just done an amazing job.”
Harvick said he was nervous in the final laps knowing how far Newman might go to win a championship, but in the end — it didn’t matter.
“I was just going to hold the pedal down and hope for the best,” Harvick said. “I knew our car was good (enough to win).”
Harvick’s run to the front was saved after the 12th caution with 13 to go, tightening the field again after the Budweiser Chevrolet moved from 12th to seventh in less than two laps — a caution that set the stage for his bonzai seventh-to-first charge on the ensuing restart.
Harvick said that charge, along with everything that followed it, was filled with emotion — and wouldn’t have been possible without some help from a former champion.
“I’m just really excited. It’s really special for everybody. I’ve been trying for 13 years (to win a championship). Just gotta thank Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson for helping me through this week,” Harvick added. “Jimmie was in my trailer as much as any of my teammates and calling me and on the phone and doing all the things that it takes to tell me what I needed to do today.”
“This new format has been so stressful. The racing has been phenomenal. I’m going to sleep for a week.”
Newman took two tires on a pit stop during the 11th caution of the race at lap 248, and nearly got into clean air to have a shot at his first Sprint Cup title, but was no match for Harvick’s for fresh Goodyear Eagles at the end, coming up a half-second short of his first championship after starting 21st on the day.
“Restarts have been my strong suit with the package that we run and that was a little bit tough,” Newman said. “I thought about hauling it in there wide open on Kevin, but that wasn’t the right thing to do. I wouldn’t have wanted him to do that to me. It was just a great year really for us.
“They say you’ve got to lose one before you can win one. I’m ready to win one now.”
Brad Keselowski finished third and in the process claimed fifth place in the championship standings over Chase-long rival Jeff Gordon, with Paul Menard crossing fourth and Jamie McMurray charging forward on a heroic drive in the final laps to round out the top five.
Matt Kenseth finished sixth, followed by Hamlin (who fell back on old tires after being passed for the final lead change) in seventh.
“Obviously we had a championship-type car, championship-type effort, but those last breaks just didn’t go our way,” the Virginia native said. “I thought once our car really came into its own as soon as it went dark, and I thought we had the best car, and we just struggled with restart speed.
“I gave up a position to Harvick there with 20-some laps to go, and Darian tried to make a call to make that back up and leave us out there on tires, and obviously we were sitting ducks as long as cautions kept coming. We were able to jump out and get the lead, you know, had a decent lead, and just the cautions didn’t go our way.”
Hamlin said he couldn’t have done any more over the final laps, nor could he have asked any more from his Joe Gibbs Racing crew.
“That’s all you could ask. We had a car that was capable of winning today. We know that. Our effort was 100 percent. It’s just that the breaks didn’t quite work out for us.”
Clint Bowyer salvaged a tough season with an eighth place result and Jimmie Johnson ended up ninth, finishing outside the top ten in points (11th) for the first time in his Sprint Cup career.
Race-long dominator Jeff Gordon, who led 161 of the race’s 267 laps, pulled down pit road with 11 laps remaining for fresh tires and roared back through the field to cap off the top ten. Gordon, Hamlin and Brian Vickers stayed out as the majority of the field came down pit road during that lap 248 yellow but could not make their older tires work down the stretch.
Beyond the top ten — on one of NASCAR’s most dramatic nights, numerous storylines played out over the course of the event that made for a highly-entertaining end to NASCAR’s first season with eliminations in the Chase format.
Multiple cautions (six in total over the final 67 laps) made the pit crews and pit stops vital — ultimately determining the teams in contention for the win and the title at the end.
Logano’s left side skirt broke on the same lap 250 pit stop where Newman took two tires and dropped the jack on the Shell-Pennzoil Ford, dropping Logano to 29th for the restart and out of championship contention. The pit stop miscue came after Logano had previously suffered damage from catching the wall on lap 183 running inside the top five, and also fell back to 11th after a dropped lug nut when he came to pit road at lap 230.
The 24-year-old would rally to finish 16th, but end up fourth in the final Chase standings after posting five wins on the season, including two in the Chase.
“It was a heck of a race up there. I screwed up and hit the wall early and we were able to recover then had the mistake on pit road which didn’t give us enough time to recover from that,” Logano said. “It is unfortunate. Execution was our strong point all year and we just didn’t do it tonight. For that reason we finished fourth (in the championship) after I think we scored the most points this whole Chase.
“We finished fourth in a season I feel we had a great championship run going. At the same time, we can’t hold our heads down. It is frustrating after all that to say you finished fourth when I feel like this team deserved a lot better.”
The four title contenders were the class of the field for much of Sunday’s race, including all still running inside the top five with 100 laps to go in the event — taking away the real chance for a surprise or sentimental winner on the evening.
Among those were Dale Earnhardt Jr., in his final race with crew chief Steve Letarte; A.J. Allmendinger, who was looking for a second win on a breakout season; and Tony Stewart, who was looking to extend his streak of winning a race every season of his Cup career.
Junior had a flat tire on lap 97 that put him behind the 8-ball for much of the event despite climbing as high as fifth at two points in the second half of the event — he would finish 14th — and Allmendinger popped the wall on two separate occasions, ultimately destroying his machine on lap 236 in a vicious crash in turn three.
While Stewart’s streak officially came to an end at 15 seasons, he did have one reason to smile — after Harvick won his team, Stewart Haas Racing, their second Cup championship in four years (following Stewart’s title in 2011).
The three-time Cup champion celebrated his first title earned solely as a team owner, and said he couldn’t have been happier to do it with such a long-time friend.
“I think from December last year when Rodney and him (Harvick) and this whole 4 car team went to its first test, it was obvious they were going to be a force to be reckoned with all year,” Stewart said. “It just shows how tough this Chase was this year to get to this last day then to watch the end of the race and see all four contenders be up front at the end there. It shows how hard it is to win a Sprint Cup Series championship.”
“Kevin’s been a great friend, all the way back to when he started KHI (Kevin Harvick Incorporated) and we drove one of his cars for him. That makes tonight that much more special.”
In all, the thrilling finale race featured 18 lead changes despite only five drivers (Harvick, Hamlin, Gordon, Kurt Busch and Blake Koch) taking time at the front, and under green-flag conditions, only Harvick, Hamlin and Gordon led the event the whole night. 13 cautions slowed the pace for 52 laps, one yellow off of the track record mark, for an average speed of 122.280 mph.
With the conclusion of the 2014 season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series looks ahead to the kickoff for the 2015 campaign, with begins with the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2014 as part of Budweiser Speedweeks.