The fastest driver doesn’t always win a race—or a championship—but on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kevin Harvick did both.
Driving a No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet that has been the class of the field for most of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, Harvick won Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at the 1.5-mile intermediate track and claimed his first premier series championship after a three-lap drag race against underdog title contender Ryan Newman.
Harvick was so wrapped up in the championship battle that the victory in the race didn’t register right away.
“I forgot we won the race—how about that?” Harvick chuckled. “I think this Chase is about the best thing that has happened to this sport over the last decade. This is probably going to shorten the drivers’ careers, because it’s been so stressful, but I want to thank every single fan for sticking with this sport, and to the industry for working to get it right.”
After the 13th caution slowed the field on Lap 263, the result of debris dripping from the No. 32 Ford of Blake Koch, Harvick led the field to green on Lap 265 of 267 with Newman beside him.
Newman stayed to the inside of Harvick’s car through the first corner, but Harvick, on four fresh tires to Newman’s two, cleared the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet and pulled away to a half-second victory.
Under NASCAR’s new elimination format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the driver who won five times, including Sunday, and led 2,137 laps throughout the season beat the driver who was winless with 41 laps led by a single point.
In his first season with SHR, Harvick won for the first time at Homestead and for the 28th time in his career. With the highest finisher among the Championship 4 contenders assured of the title, Denny Hamlin came home seventh, and Joey Logano ran 16th after a disastrous late-race pit stop.
Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, made a critical call to bring Harvick to pit road for four tires under caution on Lap 249. With three cars staying on the track and eight others taking right-side tires only, Harvick restarted 12th, but two quick cautions fell his way.
Harvick made up six positions almost immediately and restarted sixth after the 12th caution for an accident involving Koch and J.J. Yeley on Lap 254.
“I knew I needed to get a bunch of (positions),” Harvick said. “I was fortunate to start on the outside. The seas kind of parted there as I came off of Turn 2 and was about to get four or five of them; I don’t really know, but it was time to go for broke at that particular point.
“When the next caution came out, we were fortunate enough again to line up on the outside (for the restart on Lap 259). That was pretty much what we needed—to get the run on the outside down the backstretch.”
On the final restart against Harvick, Newman said he contemplated the sort of all-or-nothing move he had used a week earlier against Kyle Larson to edge Jeff Gordon by one point for the final position in the Championship 4 Round.
But Newman quickly thought better of the idea.
“In the end, I just got down underneath him and he was close enough to me, took some of the air away from me,” Newman said. “I could have kept it wide open and washed up into him, and it wasn’t the right move. It wasn’t what I would have wanted him to do to me.
“If we were close enough on the last lap, it might have been a different game, but I wasn’t. I slipped off of Turn 4 coming to the white, and at that point it was pretty much over. I really was hoping he would slip a tire, blow a motor, something like that. That was our only hope. All those things go through your mind, but I had a pretty good run and cut down to the bottom and just ran out of racetrack, ran out of room, and he had the air—he had the line.”
Hamlin, who forewent a pit stop on Lap 249 when most of the other lead-lap cars came to pit road, restarted in the lead on Lap 259, with Newman second and Harvick sixth, but Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota quickly fell victim to cars on superior tires.
By the time NASCAR called the 13th caution on Lap 262, Hamlin had dropped to third behind Harvick and Newman, and he fell back to seventh in the final three-lap run.
“For me, there’s not one thing I would have done different,” Hamlin said. “I mean, we brought a car that was capable of winning. I just don’t know how to express it enough. Sometimes breaks go your way; sometimes they don’t. They just didn’t go our way.
“There’s not much else we could have done with the strategy that we played with the cautions that came out. I wouldn’t do a thing different. I think we overachieved greatly by being here, and we haven’t had the speed to compete for race wins all year, and we did today, on the race that really mattered. Just came up short.”
Logano’s first flirtation with a title came to an inglorious end when the No. 22 Team Penske Ford fell off the jack as the crew was changing left-side tires under caution on Lap 249. Last out of the pits, Logano restarted 29th on Lap 253 and could recover only to 16th by the checkered flag.
“It’s hard to be proud right now after coming home wherever we finished in this race,” said Logano, who gets credit for fourth in the championship standings despite winning five races. “I don’t even know what that is. I don’t even care.
“You don’t get shots at championships often. Hopefully we get another next year. This car had a lot of wins and a lot of top fives, and it doesn’t mean a thing.”
Gordon, the Coors Light Polesitter, led 161 laps, but came to pit road for tires on Lap 256 and wasn’t a factor the rest of the way, finishing 10th.
Notes: Kyle Larson finished 13th and was the runaway winner of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award after an outstanding freshman season… Marcos Ambrose finished 27th in his final race for Richard Petty Motorsports before returning to his native Australia to race V8 Supercars for owner Roger Penske… The victim of an early accident, Carl Edwards ran 34th in his final trip in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season. It was also the last race as a crew chief for Edwards’ veteran pit boss, Jimmy Fennig… Chevrolet won its 12th straight manufacturers’ championship and 38th overall.