Kevin Harvick never lost faith he could win Sprint Cup title — and fate took care of the rest

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Kevin Harvick was so excited after winning the Sprint Cup championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway that perhaps the most important detail of how he got to that place had slipped his mind:

“I forgot we won the race,” he told ESPN afterward.

Harvick put everything into winning his first career Sprint Cup championship, so much so that he can be excused for forgetting that he needed to get the checkered flag to also get the Sprint Cup championship trophy.

That’s the kind of driver Harvick has been this season: all or nothing. Wins were great, and with Sunday he winds up with five for the 2014 campaign, but they were only a means to an end.

What was the real and true reason Harvick was finally able to claim his first career Cup championship after 14 seasons of trying boils down to two words: “faith” and “fate.”

It was faith that Harvick believed he was making the right decision when he told owner Richard Childress he was leaving the only team he had known in his first 13 Cup seasons because he felt his fate had a better chance at winning the title with Stewart-Haas Racing.

It was faith and fate that Harvick trusted everything team co-owners Gene Haas and Tony Stewart told him, that they’d spare no expense, effort or personnel to get him the championship he so desperately craved.

It was faith and fate that brought Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers together, an untested pairing with a brand new cast of pit crew members, all with a singular goal of winning the championship in their first try out.

Sure, there were bumps and stumbles along the way, so much so that Harvick had to resort to “trading” pit crews with Stewart just before the Chase began 10 weeks ago, so as to assure he’d have the best hands on-deck and on pit road.

And admittedly while his faith was shaken at times during the 26 regular season primarily because of those pit road mistakes, that same faith was never completely broken that somehow, some way, Harvick, Childers and SHR – and fate – would still find a way to deliver on that championship promise.

Faith and fate aren’t easy things to believe in at times. Jeff Gordon had faith that this year’s Drive For Five (championships) would come true.

But fate ultimately proved him wrong.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. believe fate would be on his side, and that he had faith he would win his first career Sprint Cup championship and send out crew chief Steve Letarte (who is moving to NBC Sports as an analyst next year) as a championship-winning crew chief.

That effort also fell short.

Jimmie Johnson came into the 2014 season with media and fans daring to call him the “Greatest of All Time,” and that he was a virtual lock to win a seventh championship this year, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most championships won by an individual driver.

Unfortunately, a seventh title in nine seasons was not to be for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. Whether it was too little faith or what have you, fate still proved to be too little, too late.

But Harvick never lost faith that he and his new team could ultimately get the job done. From the minute they held their first test together last December until Harvick lifted the Cup championship trophy for the first time in his life Sunday, it seemed that fate and his destiny were one-in-the-same for him and no one else.

Joey Logano had the season of his career, only to see it all fall short when, as fate would have it, a jack broke on a late-race pit stop. And with it went Logano’s own championship hopes.

Then there was Denny Hamlin, who for one of the few times this season, looked like he had a stronger car than Harvick’s in Sunday’s race. Even the ESPN announcers said late in the race that it was Hamlin’s to lose, he looked so strong.

But fate had other plans: A late race pit strategy to stay out on old tires backfired, ultimately costing Hamlin the title, too.

Ryan Newman had faith he could pull off the upset, and gave Harvick the most formidable challenge in the closing laps.

But as fate would have it, Newman also came up short. Sure, Newman could have wrecked Harvick much the same way he did Kyle Larson last week to make it to the final championship round, but to his credit, Newman felt it just wasn’t the right thing to do.

“I thought about hauling it in there wide open but that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do,” Newman said of Harvick. “I wouldn’t want him to do that to me.”

To his credit, Newman, who essentially replaced Harvick at RCR this season after being dumped by SHR after last season, had perhaps the best line of any of Harvick’s challengers: “They say you have to lose one before you can win one. I’m ready to win one now.”

Maybe next year, faith and fate will indeed shine upon Newman.

But Sunday, it was all Harvick’s, resulting in the second championship by Stewart-Haas Racing in four seasons, the other coming by Stewart in 2011.

It was Stewart that gave Harvick perhaps the best advice of all before the race, to have faith and believe that fate will come out in his favor.

“It’s never over till its over.’ Those were his (Tony’s) last words to me today, ‘Don’t ever quit until they drop the checkered flag because its not over,’” Harvick said. “I remembered that the whole race and so here we are.”

Indeed, here we are. Harvick earns his first career Cup championship, becomes the 30th different champion in the history of NASCAR’s premier series, and only the third driver in history to win both a Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series championship in his career (joining Brad Keselowski and Bobby Labonte).

Along the way to the coveted Cup crown, Harvick led the most laps of any driver in the series, 2,137 – nearly three times more than his previous single-season high of 886 in 2008.

He finished the season with five wins (tied for second-most of all drivers), 20 top-10 finishes and eight poles (after having eight poles in total for his entire career in his previous 13 seasons).

And last but not least, Harvick had the best finishing average of any driver in this year’s Chase of 8.0.

Even with all the hiccups along the way, Harvick never lost faith that he and his team could win the championship, and fate made sure it did its part as well.

When you have a 1-2 punch like that, you can’t help but come out on top.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” — pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins (including a milestone 50th win), was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

Follow @JerryBonkowski