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

March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter