The knock on the No. 4 team this year with driver Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers was simple. Entering Homestead, they had clearly proven themselves as one of the fastest — if not the fastest — on the NASCAR Sprint Cup grid each week: four wins, including a Phoenix sweep and leading the most laps out in the series was their proof on paper. But for all the victories they’d tallied, this bunch still had a hard time finishing races. You can spend 10,000 laps up front over the course of a year but if you don’t perform in crunch time, in the final laps, all that number amounts to is a pretty stat.
On Sunday, Harvick and Childers proved that over nine months, in just their first season together, they’ve been able to overcome their deficiencies. Charging from 12th to first in the final 20 laps of the race, Harvick rocketed to the front in a winner-take-all Chase format that cemented his logic to move from Richard Childress Racing, where he’d spent his entire Cup career, to Stewart-Haas Racing.
“It really changed my life in a new direction,” he said after earning his first Cup title the way it should be earned — in Victory Lane. “(Wife) Delana and I looked at things and said, ‘What’s going to make us happy?’ Because in the end, if you’re not happy, nothing is going to work like it should.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my whole life than I have been this year. I have no idea how much money I make or what I do. I love showing up to work. And it’s been a long, long time since I can sit up here and honestly tell you that I love the experience of everything that’s been around me — it just makes it fun.”
So is that what pushed Harvick to the front — that and a gutsy call by Childers to give him four fresh tires while other contenders stayed out or took two? Was it pure emotion that made the difference? With athletes, we often forget that at the highest level, what separates the most talented individuals is smaller than the width of a fingernail. In Happy Hour practice Saturday, the top speeds of the final four contenders were separated by less than .07 seconds. And throughout most of Homestead’s 400 miles on Sunday, each driver ran within the top 5.
Considering that little separation, combined with a week’s worth of grueling media attention, mental health does play a bigger role. Harvick’s enjoyment of this process this time around was clearly better than the other times he’s entered the final weekend with a shot: 2006, ’10, ’13. In all those cases, he was clearly an underdog rather than the favorite but the pressure appeared to get to him.
Not this time. This year, Harvick turned to co-owner Tony Stewart and six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, both of whom have been in this position before and offered time and advice. It’s a resource he never quite had at RCR, a place where he was expected to be the unquestioned leader as opposed to SHR, a place where he can just … fit in.
“Tony was a big part of giving me the heads up and saying, ‘All right, bud, this is not going to be like [anything you’ve been through],’” Harvick said. “He was a big help to helping Delana and I just get through the week and keeping it low key. And Johnson was a huge help in just helping — he’d show up in the trailer after every practice and called (and) texted to Rodney and myself.”
Everyone in this top tier of NASCAR has talent. Just to make it to the 43-car grid says something about your level of stock car achievement. They can all put in a good qualifying lap, capture lightning out of a bottle in just one day. To put together a full season, reach the peak over 36 races they need the right combination of people.
Harvick spent 13 years trying to find that combo at RCR. Elsewhere, it took him just one year. That’s how close he’s been all this time.
“Through the Gears” we go, one final time in 2014 …
FIRST GEAR: Harvick made the right move
Harvick’s race at Homestead was the perfect mix of both strategy and speed. For much of the day, he actually found himself stuck behind Denny Hamlin, the 2013 Homestead winner, in position to capitalize and sneak away with a title. But Hamlin, during a late caution, chose to stay out on old tires while Harvick ducked down pit road for four. With a number of yellows that came after that, constantly bunching the field up on restarts, it gave Harvick the ability to sneak by traffic, get up to Hamlin and ultimately speed right past him.
“I have no idea how I got the lead,” he said afterwards. “I have no clue.”
Hamlin, though, knew exactly how he did it, claiming crew chief Darian Grubb made a bad call to keep him out on old tires.
“We were sitting ducks as long as cautions kept coming out,” he said. “The breaks didn’t quite work out for us.”
So Harvick takes the title, the best possible outcome for NASCAR and its new playoff format. In past years, this team would be dead in the water, strong on speed all year but crushed by inconsistency. But in using the “win and keep going” portion of the new rules, it was able to peak down the stretch, winning three of the final six races and establishing itself atop NASCAR’s hierarchy.
SECOND GEAR: Second is the first … winner?
Hamlin’s fall to third happened when Ryan Newman, bidding to become the sport’s first winless champion, worked himself to second place. It was the best finish for the No. 31 car all season, produced in the finale, as they finished off the Chase as one of the sport’s most unlikely underdogs. His Richard Childress Racing team now enters 2015 with plenty of momentum, lifting up what had been a disappointing year with its three-car program.
“Just a lot of fight,” Newman said. “I’m just so proud of our team.”
With a call for two fresh tires, Newman actually had track position on Harvick down the stretch but couldn’t hold on as the No. 4 car came streaming past. Clearing Hamlin for second, Newman had a chance but never really had the speed to get out front. Ending without a single lap led, his stat line for the season will read as one of the most surprising for a second-place finisher in points: 0 wins, five top 5s, and just 41 laps led in 36 starts.
Surely, Newman and RCR made the most of this new format, working the system and top 10-ing it to death to give themselves a chance. But don’t hate the players, hate the game … and remember that in the end, it was still the faster car that won out.
THIRD GEAR: Oh, what could have been
It was a small thing, nearly unnoticeable, but none of Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers were in the Chevy post-race “Notes and Quotes” release from Homestead-Miami. That’s in large part because all four were eliminated from title contention, the first time that’s happened for HMS since 2011 and just the second time in the 11-year history of the Chase.
Jeff Gordon, who wound up sixth in the points, has to be the most frustrated in the camp. At Homestead, he led the most laps (161) and seemed predestined to spoil the title party until an inexplicable late pit stop for tires. While Gordon charged back to run 10th, salvaging a decent day, it was a head-scratcher that made you wonder if HMS, aligned strongly with Stewart-Haas Racing, wanted to get one less car out of the way for Harvick to pass en route to the title.
Of course, some might say this championship should be Gordon’s anyway. His regular-season points tally was higher than everyone else and without a Chase, he takes the trophy by 37 over Joey Logano. Logano, in his own right, was also feeling the pain; his point total earns him a championship under the 2004-13 Chase format. But that’s not the way the game is played and both had their chances throughout the postseason to get the job done.
“Unfortunately, a great season like that makes this overall finish fourth because of one mistake, but that's what the rules are,” Logano said. “We understand that. This team did a great job of consistently being fast. In previous years, that would have been perfect but coming into this race and the way the points go, it doesn't pay any more, obviously. We still feel like we did a lot better than fourth this season.”
There were many still unsatisfied because of NASCAR’s new playoff format. However, the ratings over the last two races, combined with energetic interest and a sold-out crowd the last two events (Phoenix and Homestead) will create a perception difficult to break. I’ve got news for you, longtime traditionalists: this playoff isn’t going away.
“You know, what I wanted to do is grow the sport, put us in a stronger position for years to come,” Brad Keselowski said after becoming the epicenter for how it found emotions spilling over. “I think sometimes we get caught up in too much of the rhetoric around what a champion should reward, whether it's consistency or wins and those things. And I think I might be a little bit too close to the fire to provide an objective answer. But really all I care about with the format is that it takes the sport to another level for years to come. I think the jury is still out on that, but it looks like it's going to be good.”
FOURTH GEAR: Wrapping up odds ‘n’ ends
While the championship drama defined Sunday’s race, there were plenty of other storylines to follow. Kyle Larson, while running a disappointing 13th, easily defeated Austin Dillon among others for the 2014 Rookie of the Year title. Larson’s eight top-5 finishes left him 17th in points, the highest of any non-Chaser and he totaled more laps led (53) than all other freshman contenders combined.
“I felt like we would be the top contender once we got halfway through the season, and we definitely were,” Larson said. “(I’m) eally proud of that, proud of the effort everybody has put in on these race cars.”
Meanwhile, Chevrolet finished with victories in six of the final eight races, clinching the manufacturers’ title for a 12th straight year. Ford finished second, producing a healthy 14 victories while Toyota drivers managed just two en route to last place.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who gave Chevy something to cheer about much of the year, wrapped up his final race with crew chief Steve Letarte. The duo didn’t succeed in the postseason but still produced a respectable four-win season, Earnhardt’s best in a decade, during their final year together.
Finally, defending champion Jimmie Johnson wrapped up the year 11th in points. It’s the worst performance of his 13-year career in Cup and coincided with crew chief Chad Knaus getting called to the NASCAR hauler after the race. Knaus wanted to add a wheel spacer on a hub, preventing a loose wheel during the Homestead event but was told not to by a NASCAR official. Why is unclear, since the move isn’t exactly illegal but Knaus ignored the directive, exclaiming the sport holds a special set of rules for the No. 48 team. That angered many.
“We were just trying to clarify what went on,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton after the race, trying to downplay it although adding Hendrick GM Doug Duchardt to the hauler raised eyebrows. “It's fine. We just wanted to clear the air and clarify everything. It's really not an issue."
Tony Stewart’s streak of 15 straight seasons with a win came to an end early Sunday. A bashed front end grille caused the No. 14 car to overheat and left Stewart sitting inside the garage dead last. “All streaks come to an end at one point,” he told the press earlier this week, holding firm that crew chief Chad Johnston and the other major players working on his car would keep their jobs heading into next year. … It was a rough day for Roush Fenway Racing as two of three cars were involved in wrecks while the third of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could only muster 22nd. With Carl Edwards leaving for Joe Gibbs Racing next season, the three drivers that remain – Stenhouse, Greg Biffle, and incoming Trevor Bayne – had a total of one top-5 finish between them in the second half of this season. … Marcos Ambrose ran 27th in his NASCAR finale with Richard Petty Motorsports. The Australian, heading back to his home country, finishes his Cup career with two victories in 227 starts (both at Watkins Glen) but no Chase appearances and a disappointing zero in the win column on oval tracks. … Among the early offseason talk on rule changes: fixing sideskirts, so sheet metal doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb on the side of the cars and getting better adhesion on grille pieces to cut down on debris. The amount of metal coming off has been alarming, with “real” debris causing five of the 13 cautions at Homestead Sunday.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.