Many competitors have already said that Kevin Harvick deserved the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship – and many fans agree.
During the course of the season he emerged as one of the most competitive drivers in NASCAR. He put up the kind of numbers it takes to win a title.
For example, he led 2,137 laps, more than any other driver. He’s only the third competitor to lead more than 2,000 laps in a given season.
Interestingly, Jimmie Johnson lead 2,238 laps in 2009 and Jeff Gordon 2,320 laps in 2001 – and both won a championship.
Just prior to the start of the Chase, Harvick started leading laps with ease. He led the most laps in four of the first five “playoff” races, but won only once, at Charlotte.
Prior to 2014, Harvick finished among the top-five in the championship standings six times. He finished third three times, in 2010, 2011 and 2013.
Despite his propensity for leading laps during the Chase, Harvick found himself in a quandary. He was eighth in points after Texas and had to find some way to move into the final four after Phoenix, the next, and last, race before the championship tilt at Homestead.
Harvick came through marvelously. He won at Phoenix – where he led the most laps, again – and cracked the top four, barely.
At Phoenix Harvick might have been at his best. Certainly his championship rivals – Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman – were not about to do anything than their best.
With Harvick in the lead much of the time, the championship contenders locked themselves into the top five, lap after lap.
It was pure, hard racing – the kind of which NASCAR fans so heartily approved.
Circumstances changed near the end of the race. Harvick found himself free of most of his challengers. Only Newman persisted.
Harvick led the last eight laps (of 54 for the race) and won his second consecutive race in the Chase. It assured him of his first Sprint Cup championship.
Harvick finished with five victories – tied for second-most on the season – 24 top-fives and 20 finishes among the top 10.
Harvick won career-high eight poles in 2014 and set qualifying records six times.
Harvick won the second Sprint Cup title for Stewart Haas Racing since its inception in 2009. The team won the championship with co-owner Tony Stewart in 2011.
But I daresay this year’s title has been far more satisfying. SHR has endured a difficult, controversial year. As you know, a grand jury would not indict Stewart after he struck and killed a driver in a Sprint Cup race in New York in August.
Kurt Busch faces allegations he assaulted his girlfriend in Dover in September. Investigation is ongoing.
It was Harvick’s championship that brought a new, positive focus to SHR and helped establish it as a quality team – despite its difficulties.
This might be Harvick’s first Sprint Cup title but he is no stranger to championships. He has eight driving titles in 33 years of racing.
He joins Bobby Labonte and Brad Keselowski as the only three drivers to have won Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series championships.
Harvick admitted that to win the title wasn’t easy. Prior to the Homestead race, he felt the pressure.
“The week ate me up,” Harvick said. “If it wasn’t for Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, I would have been in bad trouble. Those guys really helped me get through the week.
“I was a little anxious both days of practice, overdriving the car and not doing things I needed to do. After every practice, Jimmie was in there, and in our team debriefs Tony was constantly telling me just to go race and that it’s just another race.
“It was. It all worked out. I’m just really proud of everybody.”
Harvick did not join SHR until the start of this season. He spent 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing, where he compiled a record of 23 wins, 100 top-five finishes and 209 among the top 10.
But changes were coming at RCR, including the emergence of Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon. So Harvick moved on.
And who could have predicted his first season at SHR would bring a championship?
“They gave us all the resources that we needed, and said, ‘Whatever you guys think you need, you go get,’ ” Harvick said. “We never talked about money, we never talked about any anything financial. It was just go get what you need.
“We built all brand new race cars, trucks, trailers with all new people. This format really helped us build through the year. We had really fast cars but it helped us build as a team.”
Harvick also acknowledged that the new Chase format was a boon and a success for him. – which is obvious.
“I think this Chase is about the best thing that has happened to this sport over the last decade,” he said. “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.”