Kevin Harvick took his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in style by scoring his fifth win of the year in the season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. Harvick toiled with Richard Childress’s team for 13 seasons from 2001-13. He was Childress’s choice to replace Dale Earnhardt after he died at Daytona in ’01 and although Harvick ran well, regularly winning races and occasionally looking like a championship contender, he was never able to put it all together with Childress.
Finally, after finishing third in NASCAR’s 2010 and ’11 championships, Harvick decided in 2012 to leave Childress at the end of 2013 to join Tony Stewart and Gene Haas’s Chevrolet team for this season. It proved a good decision because Harvick has not only been Stewart-Haas’s quickest driver this year, he’s also been the man to beat more times than anyone else, leading more than 2100 laps during the year. He’s dominated many races and only some bad luck has prevented him from winning more.
NASCAR instituted its Chase for the Cup 11 years ago. Since then NASCAR has determined its Sprint Cup champion by a playoff among the top dozen or so drivers in points over the last 10 of the year’s 36 races. Many long-time fans hate the Chase, preferring a traditional championship won or lost over an entire season, but the Chase has become institutionalised. It’s part of NASCAR’s modern landscape.
In fact, NASCAR has occupied itself in recent years by tweaking the Chase to try to create more excitement, more media and internet buzz, and attempt to reverse the steady decline in TV ratings and bums in seats that have become hard facts of life for NASCAR over the past half-dozen years.
This year NASCAR created a new version of the Chase. Sixteen drivers where whittled down to four for last weekend’s season finale at Homestead and the champion would be the first of those four to finish the year’s last race.
NASCAR’s chairman Brian France said the new system would put a premium on winning rather than collecting points and would manufacture more race-by-race drama for the media and fans to chew on. “It’s going to make winning the most important thing by a wide margin,” France declared. “Everything is focused around winning. It will reward a very worthy champion at the end of each season with a best-of-the-best, winner-take-all showdown.”
But in fact the over-complicated new system produced an embarrassing if not silly result as three of the year’s top drivers – Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – were eliminated from contention prior to last weekend’s season finale while two weak performers – Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman – made the cut.
Much ridicule was heaped on Newman in particular, who has not come close to winning a race this year. Newman has been racing Sprint Cup cars for 14 years, scoring a season-high eight wins with Penske in 2003, but he left Penske at the end of 2008 to join Stewart-Haas before moving on to Richard Childress’s team this year. But Newman hasn’t had much of a season, collecting no more than four top five finishes and leading only 41 laps all year yet still managing to qualify for the final round of this year’s Chase.
Denny Hamlin has been driving Sprint Cup cars for Joe Gibbs’ team since 2005. In 2010 Hamlin won eight races and battled unsuccessfully with Jimmie Johnson for the championship, finishing second in points. Last year he missed four races after breaking his back but rebounded to win the season closer. This year Hamlin has run well in many races but he’s also been a non-entity in some. He drove a strong race at Homestead but won only once this year and led fewer than 400 laps, better than Newman, but hardly one of the year’s top performers.
Joey Logano also qualified for the final round of championship contenders. Logano, 24, drives one of Team Penske’s cars beside Keselowski. He won five races this year and led 1000 laps. Team-mate Keselowski, champion in 2012, accumulated a season-high total of six wins plus 11 more top fives and led more than 1500 laps. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon won four races and led more than 1000 laps while six-time champ Jimmie Johnson won four races and led over 1300 laps. Yet NASCAR’s latest ‘Chase’ format prevented all three of these previous champions from taking a run at this year’s title.
But in the end Harvick is a very deserving champion. His championship also provides some needed pleasure and satisfaction for team owner and team-mate Tony Stewart, who has suffered through some tough times this year.
“I think this latest version of the Chase is probably the best thing that’s happened to the sport,” Harvick declared. “It’s probably going to shorten the drivers’ careers by a few years because it’s been so stressful. I want to thank all the fans for sticking with this sport and everyone in the industry for trying to get it right.”
As NASCAR’s new champion, Harvick will be an excellent representative for the sport. It would be nice if more fans shared his positive view of the latest Chase.