HOMESTEAD, Fla. - NASCAR promised drama in its newest incarnation of the Chase, and Sunday's season-ending EcoBoost 400 delivered exactly that, beyond any of the sport's wildest dreams.
Kevin Harvick held off a powerful charge from his three challengers, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, winning the season finale to claim the 2014 Sprint Cup championship in definitive fashion.
"I really don't know what to say," Harvick said after getting out of his car, celebrating with his team. "It's really special for everybody."
NASCAR created the new Chase in advance of the 2014 season with the express intent of creating a so-called “Game 7 moment” – everything on the line, win-or-go-home, Hail Mary, you get the idea. The new Chase is thus a Frankenstein’s monster built from the parts of other championships: the NCAA’s college hoops bracket, the World Series’ Game 7 dramatics, the Super Bowl’s grand pomposity.
The new Chase would feature 16 drivers. The field would winnow down over the course of 10 races, with four drivers being eliminated every three races. The season would conclude with a four-driver winner-take-all race in Homestead.
Fans complained of gimmickry and confusion, saying that the new Chase cheapened a championship, complaints that – since we’re fundamentally talking about a game here – smacked of Batman fans complaining about the latest movie version.
Here’s the thing, though: it worked to perfection. NASCAR created a route to a championship that was like a rickety bridge over a chasm: faster, more direct, but far riskier. And people fought like hell to get across that bridge before it snapped.
[Related: Final 2014 Sprint Cup standings]
In the end, it will crown a champion who deserved to win. Harvick led more laps than anyone this season – by a long shot – and won five races, second only to Brad Keselowski's six.
The Chase began with 16 drivers, 13 of whom had won a race. The final three -- Newman, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle – got in because they had totaled the highest points through the season without winning a race. The first three races of the Chase ran as expected, with Biffle, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger getting the axe.
It was in the second elimination that the story ratcheted up another level.
A three-race advance-or-fall segment isn’t enough time to allow for any poor finishes, and that led to tempers exploding. In Charlotte, Keselowski felt Kenseth had wronged him late in the race. Keselowski drove his car into Kenseth’s just after the race; Hamlin and non-Chaser Tony Stewart responded by thumping Keselowski’s No. 2 with their own cars; and Kenseth finished the deal with a dive-off-the-top-rope headlock of Keselowski between haulers. The crews fought, NASCAR made national morning-show headlines, and everyone except Keselowski proclaimed their satisfaction with how the Chase was proceeding.
Keselowski came into Talladega, the final race of the second round, needing a victory to advance. Amazingly, he got it. However, this was where the curtain fell for several of NASCAR’s biggest names: Jimmie Johnson; Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Kasey Kahne; and Kyle Busch, the victim of the Chase’s worst luck when a wreck between non-Chasers knocked him out.
And then there were eight, and NASCAR’s Chase achieved full liftoff. At Texas, Keselowski went for a late-race pass on Gordon, who bumped Keselowski's No. 2 and slid into the wall, finishing in what would turn out to be a Chase-killing 29th place. Gordon and Keselowski jawed a bit after the race, their crews amped, and then Harvick threw a Molotov cocktail on the pool of gasoline, shoving Keselowski and setting off a 50-person fight in the pits.
Once again, NASCAR made national headlines, though the question of whether these were the kinds of headlines NASCAR needed grew louder.
In the final race of the third round, Harvick needed a victory and got it, crowding out Keselowski, Kenseth, and Carl Edwards. Hamlin and Logano advanced on points. That left Jeff Gordon racing Newman for the final spot, and here’s how close it was: Gordon crossed the finish line eligible for the championship, but well behind him, in the final turn of the final lap, Newman bumped Kyle Larson aside to gain one spot – just enough to bump Gordon out.
Dramatic? Hell yes. Legitimate? Well … there’s the rub.
Your championship four thus consisted of Harvick and Logano, two of the most dominant drivers of the entire season; Hamlin, who had won one race back in May; and Newman, who had zero wins and only four top-five finishes.
The conventional wisdom held, then, that this was a match between Harvick and Logano, with Hamlin and Newman being lucky to get invites to the party. Harvick held the edge in both momentum and attitude, although Logano had boasted the stronger overall year.
For much of the race, conventional wisdom indeed held true. Harvick led the majority of the laps measured against his three championship rivals, followed by Logano and Hamlin. Newman, as expected, trailed the three, though not by nearly as much as expected. Indeed, Gordon seemed to be the only driver who could regularly run with the Chasers, who front-loaded the very top of the field.
More than 10 cautions packed and re-packed the field, but it was a crucial caution with less than 20 laps remaining that changed the entire complexion of the race. In for tires, Logano's car fell off the jack, sending him from the top 5 all the way back to 29th and effectively ending his championship hopes. Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb made a gutsy call to stay out on old tires.
Another caution led to a restart with nine laps remaining, and that restart saw Hamlin and Newman starting side by side on the front row, with Harvick right behind. Hamlin got the stronger start, and Harvick worked his way up to second place behind Hamlin. Harvick worked his way around Hamlin when yet another caution hit, leaving the championship cars to restart 1-2-3, Harvick-Newman-Hamlin, with just four laps remaining.
On the final restart, Hamlin had trouble, dropping off the championship pace. And on the final lap, Newman couldn't quite catch Harvick, who won his first Sprint Cup championship.
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