Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 3 — Kevin Harvick wins the Sprint Cup championship

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MotorSportsTalk is counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today, we come to No. 3, Kevin Harvick’s outstanding “rookie” season with Stewart-Haas Racing, culminating with the first Sprint Cup championship of his career.…

When the 2014 Sprint Cup season began, Kevin Harvick was essentially an unknown entity.

After 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing, Harvick pulled up stakes and moved to Stewart-Haas Racing, co-owned by one of his best friends and three-time Sprint Cup champion, Tony Stewart.

Harvick went from knowing what he had at RCR to a brand new team, brand new crew chief, brand new pit crew, brand new organization, brand new cars – and a brand new way of doing things.

The initial learning curve was steep, but Harvick’s experience, coupled with an almost immediate bonding with crew chief Rodney Childers, helped lessen what could have been significantly greater growing pains.

Harvick jumped out to a great start with his new team, finishing 13th in its first race, the Daytona 500, and followed that up with a win at Phoenix in the second race of the season.

Then things fell completely apart.

Harvick finished 41st at Las Vegas, 39th at Bristol (crash) and 36th at Fontana, dropping from fourth place in the standings after his win at Phoenix to 25th after Fontana.

After a seventh-place finish at Martinsville, he plummeted to 42nd at Texas due to engine issues (dropping to 26th in the season standings) before winning for a second time at Darlington.

At the same time, Harvick’s pit crew began to unravel at times, making several mistakes on pit road that ultimately cost Harvick several positions on the race track, if not potentially a few more wins in the process.

But the win at Darlington finally got the team back on track, and over the following 15 races, would achieve five top-five finishes (all runner-up finishes) and four other top-10 showings.

Still, pit road errors continued to be a significant factor. In several of those runner-up finishes, if the pit crew had not made a mistake such as loose wheels, dropped/missing lug nuts and the like, who knows how many more races Harvick would have potentially won.

Not wanting to go into the Chase and run the risk of even more mistakes, Childers made a bold move, “trading” Harvick’s pit crew to that of teammate Tony Stewart for the playoffs.

The move was nothing short of genius.

But there were still struggles along the way in the Chase, particularly in the seventh race of the 10-race playoff. It was at Martinsville that Harvick had his worst finish in the Chase, a 33rd-place showing to begin the Eliminator Round segment.

He dropped to last of the eight drivers remaining in the Elimination Round and stayed in eighth even after finishing second at Texas the following week.

He needed a strong race at Phoenix, the final race of the Eliminator Round, to make the Championship Round season finale at Homestead.

And he did, winning in the Valley of the Sun to not only jump back to No. 1 in the standings, but also to go into Homestead with arguably the best momentum of the four drivers that would battle it out in the winner-take-all title match.

Harvick put everything on the line, drove like he’s never driven before and ultimately not only won the race at Homestead, but also the championship in the process.

Harvick would end the season with five wins, 14 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes, along with a career single-season personal record of eight pole positions.

But most importantly, he finally succeeded in his career-long goal of winning a Sprint Cup championship.

In the process, he may very well have proven to other drivers who in the near future may decide to leave their own long-time homes to see if the grass – and overall racing success – is truly greener with another organization.

While Harvick has had temper flare-ups at several points during his Cup career, he couldn’t have been more cooler, patient or in control as he was in the Chase.

He didn’t let his emotions or even bad finishes get to him in the playoffs. He remained confident, cool and collected – the very ingredients that make up true champions.

Will Harvick be able to repeat as champ in 2015?

Given the revised Chase format that went into effect in 2014, it likely will be much more difficult to see a repeat winner going forward – unlike the way Jimmie Johnson won five Cup crowns in a row (and six of eight).

Still, Harvick now knows how to win a championship – particularly under the new format – and if anyone can make it two in a row, the Bakersfield, Calif., native can.

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IndyCar’s Scott Dixon staying fit during lengthy time off

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During a regular racing schedule, five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing would spend much of his time between races at PitFit in Indianapolis.

The highly advanced workout facility on the northwest side of Indianapolis is run by noted sports trainer Jim Leo. His clientele includes IndyCar Series drivers and other athletes in the area.

In addition to the array of workout machines, Leo’s facility also has advanced equipment to test a driver’s reaction time. These range from a board with lights that rapidly flash, and a driver have to hit the board to turn them off. There are other tests drivers do to keep their skills sharp and reaction time focused.

Times have changed, though.

Indiana is under a statewide lockdown with the exception of essential services only. Instead of going to PitFit, Dixon is working out at his home on the north side of Indianapolis.

His reaction time is being tested by his wife, Emma, throw a tennis ball at him, changing the direction with each toss.

“I’ve gone back to old school, like tennis balls and Emma can drop them or throw them,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “As long as you keep up with basic cardio and lift weights and work on the neck muscles, that’s the harder part to get ready for. “As we get through this transition, we have 8-10 weeks before these things get lifted.

“I had already stopped going into Pit Fit last week. We had not been doing that for a while. Haven’t left the house for 13 days, now. We went to the grocery store once. The rest of the stuff has been delivered.

“We’re locked down, man, trying to do our best for everyone else.”

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Dixon’s home has an impressive array of workout equipment. That allows the 39-year-old racing legend to stay fit during this extended time off that won’t end until the last week of May at the earliest.

“I have most of the stuff I need at home,” Dixon explained. “Some of the reaction stuff, the D-2s and Synaptic machines plus some of the upper-body machines are pretty unique machines. Those are the machines that Jim Leo has at PitFit.

“As far as cycling, running, general weights, skiers and rollers, I have that at home.”

It seems like a lifetime ago when the world was normal. That was before the dreaded COVID-19 outbreak has literally sent society underground and locked in while a solution to this fatal virus is found.

Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images

Before this unexpected shutdown, Dixon would go into PitFit to work on specialized equipment on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He would do the rest of his physical workout at home.

“I started skipping that when we got home before the lockdown,” Dixon said. “Before the lockdown, Jim could have stayed open because he never has more than 10 people at once.

“Typically, he would have the drivers spaced out where Tony Kanaan and I would go in at 8 in the morning and Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe would go in at 9:30 and then Zach Veach and Spencer Pigot and Charlie Kimball would go in around 11. There were only about five of us going in at once.”

Two weeks ago, Leo dropped off some equipment at Dixon’s house along with more instructions to focus on his workouts during the layoff.

Sacrifices are being made all throughout the world, including racing.

“You can’t be selfish,” Dixon said. “It sucks for the drivers, but it sucks a lot worse for a lot of other people. Luckily, the school the girls go to has e-learning. It’s school as usual on the computer from 8:30 to 3 and that has been seamless on that front.

“On a personal note, it’s nice to be home with the baby and bonding as well and that is great. But all of us wish everything was back to normal as soon as possible.”

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Dixon is the father of three, including young daughters Poppy (10), Tilly (8) and infant son, Kit.

This is a time to keep his family safe.

“You hear mixed messages about who is more at risk,” Dixon said. “Obviously, older people with underlying conditions. We’re a fairly healthy family, but still it sounds like something can trigger a pretty bad situation. It’s better to be safe than sorry so we are limiting our contact as fast as possible. The quicker everybody locks down, the quicker we will get through the situation. If we stay home, we will see a decline and hopefully get back to normal pretty quickly.

“It’s a new thing for everybody.”

For now, Dixon works out at home, while the girls continue their classes on the computer. Emma spends time with her infant son, Kit, while taking care of the family.

These days of working out at home will be important because once racing is scheduled to return, tentatively set for May 30 at Detroit, it will be flat-out, racing nearly every weekend.

There won’t be time-off in-between races.

“No, but everybody is having plenty of rest right now,” Dixon quipped. “It’s not what anybody wants. We all keep hoping everybody remains safe and healthy. It’s a difficult time for a lot of people and we’ve been very lucky that we don’t know anybody that has had an issue so far. Hopefully, that remains the same.

“Everybody is ready to go. We were ready to go at St. Pete. This will be welcomed greatly.

“Nothing is normal these days. I think what IndyCar and IMS did was probably the best of the situations. You never want to move the dates of the 500, but you always want the people to be relaxed enough they are going to come to the race, too.

“The way they have done the schedule is pretty cool. It gives them enough wiggle room now with Detroit being the kickoff. What is also fun is the July 4 doubleheader weekend at Indianapolis and St. Pete finishing the season.”

Once life returns to normal, depending on what the new normal will look like, race drivers and athletes will once again be in an area they know.

The difficult part of this, however, is nobody knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.

“The hard part right now is there are so many unknowns,” Dixon said. “That is what people hate. They could wrap their hands around two weeks, but it could be another six weeks. People will go crazy.

“That is what we are going through right now. The unknown. Nobody knows what the next step is.”

That is why Dixon has a message for all race fans to take these orders seriously.

“Stay safe. Stay away from people. Lock down. Get this period done with,” Dixon said. “Once we do that, hopefully we can crack on like normal and people can find fixes and therapies. As soon as everybody bunkers down, we will get through this sooner instead of later.

“Let’s get back to normal as quick as possible and get back to racing when we can.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500