Coming into the final race of the season at Homestead Miami Speedway, the only thing that was certain was that none of the usual suspects would be crowned the new NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. The new chase format brought the field down to four drivers vying for the title, and perennial contenders like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhart Jr. were not among the names in the competition. Whoever was going to win the championship would be brand new, the 30th different winner of the Cup in competition history. Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, and Kevvin Harvick are, none of them, new to the sport or in any way a lesser quality of driver than those names that fans are used to seeing come out on top, but any of them would have been new to winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup. When Kevin Harvick pulled it out and took the late lead, holding on to win the race, nobody doubted that he had earned the NASCAR title and more.
Last week, at Phoenix, Harvick needed a win to take a spot in the final four. After making the final eight, he was shy on points to be able to qualify for the final cut without the win. He did what he needed to do, and took the checkered flag. This week, while not technically necessary to win, most everyone on the track assumed that it would take a win to wind up ahead of the other three contenders in a battle this important. NASCAR awards no bonus points for laps led or anything else in the new format for this final race. The points were wiped clean and there was no math to it at all beyond beat the other three. In the end, that it just what he did, but it was not without plenty of drama.
It looked like Harvick had made a critical error by electing to sacrifice track position during a caution late in the race to take four tires. The No. 31 of Newman took two tires to put himself in the running up front, and Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Darlan Grubb, made the call to skip the pit stop altogether to try to hold onto the lead on the tires he had for 15 laps. That was a gutsy call that many of the commentators thought might just win Hamlin the championship. When a wreck at the back caused another caution, Newman fumbled the re-start and it looked like Hamlin would have it for sure, but Harvick crept back up and gained a few more positions, and was right where he wanted to be when yet another caution came and he was the only one of the contenders with four tires. Harvick was able to make his move when Hamlin slid up the track trying to block him. Hamlin slid high and Harvick slid under to take the lead. Nothing stopped him at that point, and Harvick held on to take the checkered flag and the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Many people have questioned the wisdom of the new rules changes implemented by NASCAR this season. The new chase changed the landscape for everyone, and some are not happy about it at all. If the goal was to create a genuinely interesting race at the final track of the year, one where the very championship could come down to the very last lap, the succeeded in doing exactly what they set out to do.
Commentary By Jim Malone
Image courtesy of Parker Anderson – Flickr License