At the beginning of the year, much was expected of Kevin Harvick. After racing for the first twelve years with Richard Childress Racing, Harvick jumped ship for a ride with Stewart-Haas Racing. Saddled with power plants and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, and the high expectations of winning, Kevin Harvick weathered the storm and captured the win at the Ford Ecoboost 400. and with it, his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship.
At the beginning of the day, Harvick was one of four drivers left from a field of 16 challengers in NASCAR’s new elimination-style “Chase Grid” Format. All four drivers had different ambitions for trying to claim the title. For Denny Hamlin, it was to exorcise the demons of a 2010 campaign that ended in heartbreak. For Joey Logano, a tumultuous stint at Joe Gibbs Racing lead to a change of scenery, and with it, a chance to finally show that his talent matched the hype. And for Ryan Newman, the cinderella story, needed to make a controversial bump and run move to advance the championship four. Today, Newman had hopes to prove that consistency could still win championships.
When the race got under way, the championship contenders ran nose to tail for most of the event. Restarts after the races’ twelve total caution flags were filled with incredible moves as the four drivers tried to blow past one another to take the championship honors. Kevin Harvick lead this race early, showing his strength as his competitors struggled with the changing track conditions. But as the sun went down, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin’s cars would get stronger, and Ryan Newman would rally back from a starting spot deep in the field to challenge Harvick for dominance. In the late stages of the race, Denny Hamlin would find himself in the lead. But a caution with 21 laps to go would brought up a hard choice for crew chiefs: Do i leave my car out on old tires, or do I gamble, come get tires, and hope for the best?
Denny Hamlin would stay out, but Logano, Harvick, and Newman would come to pitlane. Ryan Newman would take two tires, while Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick would take four. But disaster would strike the #22 Pennzoil Ford team: The car fell off the jack when the team went to change the left side tires, dropping Logano from the top five to 29th, ending his chance at a title. Joey Logano would battle back to finish 16th. Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick took four tires, dropping back to fourteenth. Harvick would have less than twenty laps to pass thirteen cars to get the title.
On the restart with 16 to go, Harvick stormed to the front, and by the time the yellow came out with only six laps to go, Kevin Harvick was sitting second, with Ryan Newman to his inside. The two drivers has essentially swapped rides at the end of the 2013 season, with Ryan Newman moving to Richard Childress Racing after Kevin Harvick departed. The two drivers, now driving each other’s old rides in effect, not only had a championship to fight for, but for bragging rights to be the first to win a title for their new team. It would come down two one restart, and four laps totalling 6 miles to decide the champion. When the race restarted, Harvick got the jump on the outside line. Ryan Newman held tough, and as they went into turn one it looked like Ryan Newman would get the advantage, but Kevin Harvick held tough, taking a lead he would not relinquish.
For Kevin Harvick, it was the end of thirteen hard years of hard work. After getting the nod after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., Kevin Harvick found himself thrust into the unenviable position of filling in for a fallen legend. While he succeeded in winning races, he was never able to bring that elusive title to Richard Childress Racing before his departure. His closest chance came in 2010, when he and Jimmie Johnson duked it out for the title. That year, Harvick was one speeding penalty away from taking the series title that year. Instead, a third place finish was all he was rewarded with, and the memories of a championship lost.
There would be no speeding penalty this time for Harvick. But for his competitors, this offseason will be one full of questions. Denny Hamlin, who watched a second title slip through his hands after staying out on the caution with 20 to go, watched another title slip through his grasp. in 2010, Hamlin lead the points coming into Homestead when a late race incident dashed any hopes he had for a title. After a second gut wrenching lost, the questions will go from when he will win a title, to can he win a title? For Joey Logano, the question will be can he rebound from a heartbreaking error cost him everything in the races’ final laps. And for Ryan Newman, can he repeat this cinderella run, or even improve on it, and finally capture NASCAR’s highest honor.
While the other drivers wonder about what could have been, Kevin Harvick will celebrate a dream realized. Kevin Harvick will celebrate tonight at the Homestead Miami with his wife Delena, his son Keelan, and all of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates and crew members. when the teams arrive at the Daytona International Speedway, the media will ask who can beat Kevin Harvick. But for now, after 5 wins, over 2,000 laps lead, and an average finish of eighth, the only question is who could have stopped him?