This is the final of Race Chaser Online’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship 4 previews. Tune in to the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at 3 p.m. (NBC, NBCSN Hot Pass, MRN, SiriusXM) to find out which of the four drivers earns the right to hoist the Sprint Cup on the championship stage.
MIAMI, Fla. — staff report — Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR photo —
The best way for Kevin Harvick to defend his 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship is to win his second consecutive race at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway in this weekend’s 400-mile NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale.
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion secured his title with a come-from-behind win in the final Sprint Cup race of 2014 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick came to pit road for four tires and fuel on lap 249, while several competitors opted for a two-tire strategy that put Harvick back in the 12th position for the lap 252 restart of the 267-lap event.
Harvick raced his way from 12th to seventh before the caution flag waved again on lap 254. When the field went back to green at lap 258, he quickly raced up to second and took the lead with just seven laps remaining. The final caution of the race came on lap 261, which set up the field for a three-lap dash to the finish. Harvick held off fellow Championship Round competitor Ryan Newman by half a second to score the win and secure the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship.
Now, as he looks ahead to Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM), Harvick stands as the only driver from the 2014 Championship Round to return to the “final four” in 2015, and arguably goes in as the title favorite.
He is joined by Championship Round newcomers Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch for the winner-take-all final race. If he finishes ahead the three of them, he will become the 11th person in NASCAR history to win consecutive NSCS titles — and admits that the journey to have a shot at that reality has not been easy.
“I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of things throughout the Chase,” Harvick said. “We’ve survived and advanced. It hasn’t been 100 percent pretty from one end to the other, but I think as you look at the Chase, it’s been championship material and that’s proven by making it to the championship race. I’m just really proud of everybody and we’re going to go down there and just do like we’ve done and race as hard as we can.”
Harvick has reason for optimism despite the strength of his competition, leading the Sprint Cup Series with 12 second-place finishes, 22 top-five finishes, 27 top-10s and 2,248 laps led with an average finish of 8.9 over the course of the 2015 season.
The defending Sprint Cup champion also leads several other statistical categories: 118.9 driver rating, 48 bonus points, 1,370 fastest laps run, 35.6 percent of fastest laps run, 22.1 percent of laps led, 2,682.61 miles led, 9,245 laps in the top-15, 91.0 percent of laps in the top-15 and average running position of 7.264.
In 14 career starts at Homestead, Harvick has one win (7.1%), six top fives (42.9%) and 12 top 10s (85.7%). His 7.6 average finish at the 1.5-mile track ranks first among active drivers. He also owns the fourth-best driver rating (102.5, second among title contenders behind Truex’s 106.6) and average running position (10.0) among active drivers at Homestead.
Harvick has finished best among the remaining competitors in 17 of the 35 Sprint Cup races in 2015, Busch has finished highest in eight races and both Gordon and Truex Jr. have each finished highest in five races.
The Bakersfield, Calif. veteran is the first driver to lead 2,000 laps in consecutive seasons since Jeff Gordon in 1995 and 1996. The last three drivers to lead more than 2,000 laps in a single season have all gone on to win the Sprint Cup championship. Jeff Gordon led 2,320 laps in 2001, Jimmie Johnson led 2,238 laps in 2009, and Harvick led 2,137 laps in 2014.
While consistency has been key for Harvick throughout the season, his appearance in the Eliminator Round came anything but easily. The defending series champion raced his way from the Challenger Round to the Contender Round with a dominant performance in a “must-win” situation at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. He fought off elimination by leading 355 of 400 laps at Dover en route to scoring his first Chase win of the season.
In the Contender Round, Harvick finished second at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, 16th at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City and 15th at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway to advance to the Eliminator Round.
The defending Sprint Cup champion punched his ticket to the Championship race at Homestead by way of points scored in the Eliminator Round. Harvick finished eighth at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, third at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and second last weekend in the rain-delayed and rain-shortened race at Phoenix International Raceway. That effort in the desert was his 15th top-two finish of the season and the most in the NSCS since Jeff Gordon posted 19 in 1998.
And now, as he looks towards Homestead-Miami and down the final stretch, Harvick has proven that the current elimination-style system is not impossible to master — though he couldn’t say whether it was easier to win in than the original Chase format.
“I never won [a championship] in the old Chase so I don’t have any reference,” Harvick said when asked to compare the two. “There were just so many different scenarios for us last year as we won the championship. You come in with a new team and new environment that I feel like was a better fit for everything that we had going on from a performance standpoint and throughout the year and the way that things went. I can honestly say that last year if we wouldn’t have won the championship I would have felt disappointed the way that the cars ran throughout the year and the way that things went. It’s not to say that you wouldn’t be disappointed if you didn’t win this year, but I feel like we’ve challenged and been competitive and done the things that we need to do to stay in the hunt. But, never having done it before last year, you just never had been in that situation to feel like we should win a championship because we have performed so well. It’s never been like that for me before throughout the whole year.”
“I think as you look at the previous years before last year it would be a hard comparison, but it’s definitely more mentally challenging than I’ve ever been in a championship hunt before. Just for the fact of the pressure that it puts on everybody. From getting in the Chase and once you win a race it kind of relieves that pressure until you get to race 27 at Chicago. Then all of a sudden the pressure doubles, triples, whatever number you want to put on it because you know that you have to perform that day at that moment. You have three weeks to get it done in order to get to the next round. There is so much more pressure just because there is so much more on the line on a daily, weekly, weekend format like we have. You’ve got to make it happen and that’s a lot of pressure for everybody to perform under. Sometimes it brings out the best in people.”
It certainly has brought out the best in Harvick, who will be looking to keep Stewart Haas Racing on top. If he can do so on Sunday, the championship would be the third for the team, following Harvick’s title in 2014 and co-owner Tony Stewart’s thrilling 2011 deadlock victory over Carl Edwards.
NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications and Stewart-Haas Racing contributed material to this report.