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.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Graham Rahal’s “Weighty Issue”

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses laser to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around, there was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“I’ve done one treatment,” Rahal said. “It takes a long time, I think. It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car and that can determine. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter weight drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is, so on…”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy…

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (bleep), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”