One week after winning at Phoenix to enter the final battle for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Kevin Harvick has done it again – this time, for all the marbles.
Harvick held off fellow title contender Ryan Newman in a three-lap dash to win the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and his first career Cup title – an electrifying finish to a Chase that delivered time and again in terms of excitement, intensity and surprises.
“This new format has been so stressful,” Harvick admitted after winning the crown. “The racing has been phenomenal. I’m going to sleep for a week.”
A late pit call from crew chief Rodney Childers proved to be the difference. Under caution with 20 laps to go, Harvick took four tires and fell all the way back to 12th.
Harvick said post-race that he thought he was in big trouble after that. But on the restart with 15 to go, he climbed up to sixth position before another yellow came out just two laps later.
Then on the next restart with nine laps left, Harvick roared all the way to second in one lap before passing another of the Championship 4, Denny Hamlin, for the race lead with seven laps left.
Newman passed Hamlin for second before debris brought out the final yellow with six to go and set up the last sprint to glory. While Hamlin failed to get going from third place at the drop of the green flag, Harvick held the lead on the outside against Newman, and eventually came home with the biggest victory of his career.
It’s even more sweet considering that Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team was essentially built from scratch last winter, and then went through a trying 2014 regular season that saw them win twice but make lots of mistakes that cost them even more victories.
But in the Chase, everything came together for the 4 camp, which celebrated three wins in the final six races of the year.
“They gave us all the resources that we needed,” Harvick said of team co-owners Gene Haas and Tony Stewart. “They said, ‘Whatever you think you guys need, you go get.’ We never talked about money or anything financial, it was just ‘Go get what you need to build a team.’ We built brand new race cars, trucks, trailers, [and got] all-new people.
“…All of the character-building moments have led to this moment right here. To close that deal out with the championship there was pretty awesome.”
As for Newman, he said that trying to make the inside lane work against Harvick on the last restart was tough.
“I thought about haulin’ it in wide-open there on Kevin, but that wouldn’t be the right thing – I wouldn’t want him to do that to me,” he said. “They say you gotta lose one before you can win one, and I’m ready to win one now.”
He also believed that to come one spot away from a championship showed the strength of his Richard Childress Racing team, even though they end the year without a single race victory.
“We didn’t win any battles, but we sure came close to winning the war,” he said. “It’s still been a lot of fun and I appreciate all the guys’ hard work.”
Hamlin faded to a seventh-place finish after staying out on track to take the title lead in the aforementioned yellow with 20 to go. He would pinpoint the rash of additional yellows at the very end as a cause for his final outcome.
“With all those cautions, it allowed those guys to close back up and it was kind of all she wrote for us,” he said. “It’s just one of those things. Sometimes, the cautions fall your way and sometimes, they don’t…Things were looking really good, but those cautions just really hurt us.”
The last Championship 4 contender, Joey Logano, was strong for much of the night but under that same 20-to-go caution, his car fell off the jack in the pits. The disaster caused him to fall all the way to 22nd place; he eventually finished 16th.
“It still was a great season for our Shell-Pennzoil Ford,” Logano said. “[The championship] just got taken away by one bad pit stop, unfortunately.”
As expected, the Championship 4 made early charges toward the front of the field. Harvick took the race lead from Gordon at Lap 15, and by Lap 20, three of the title contenders – Harvick, Hamlin, and Logano – were in the Top 5. Newman, who started worst among the quartet in 21st, eventually cracked the Top 5 himself at Lap 75.
All of them avoided major mistakes and stayed toward the front leading up to the 20-to-go caution. During the sequence, Newman took a two-tire stop to rise up to fourth behind then-race leader Jeff Gordon, Hamlin, and Brian Vickers, while Harvick took his four and dropped out of the Top 10.
But in the end, that call was the turning point and allowed Harvick to emerge as the champ.