I’m really happy, and I just really don’t know what to say. This new format has been so stressful, the racing has been phenomenal, and I’m going to sleep for a week. —Kevin Harvick
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Kevin Harvick captured his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in thrilling fashion by edging Ryan Newman to win the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday.
For Harvick to secure the title under NASCAR’s new elimination format in its postseason, the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he needed only to finish ahead of Newman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. But it was fitting that he took the checkered flag.
He had to win at Phoenix International Raceway last week just to stay in contention, and his victory lane reunion with his wife, DeLana, and their 2-year-old son, Keelan, on Sunday brought the emotion to the fore. Harvick had put his son in his car on pit road before the race as a good-luck charm, as he has every week.
“This is what we race for: You show up to race for the Sprint Cup championship trophy,” said Harvick, 38, who finished the season with five victories.
It took a veteran move — on the 12th restart of the day, when he shot to the lead, from sixth — to put Harvick in position to win, and he used his savvy to hold off Newman after the 13th, and final, restart.
In becoming the eighth champion to win the final race of the season, Harvick led 54 laps, battling with Hamlin (who finished in seventh) and Jeff Gordon at the front before having to deal with Newman’s challenge.
“I’m really happy, and I just really don’t know what to say,” Harvick said. “This new format has been so stressful, the racing has been phenomenal, and I’m going to sleep for a week.”
With a stellar performance by his Chevrolet and his pit crew, Harvick capped his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, the team partly owned by his good friend Tony Stewart.
“They gave us all the resources that we needed,” said Harvick, whose spot with Richard Childress Racing was filled by Newman. “We never talked about money, we never talked about anything financial, and it was just, go get what you need and build a team. We built all brand-new race cars, trucks, trailers with all new people, and this format helped us build as a team.”
He added, “To close that deal with the championship was pretty awesome.”
Strategy in the pits was key for all four drivers competing for the championship, with the decision by Newman and his crew chief, Luke Lambert, to take only two tires during the 11th caution nearly paying off. Newman, who started in 21st, kept moving up in the pack, hanging around the top eight all afternoon and into the night.
On the final restart, after Harvick took the high line and left the inside to him, Newman thought about attempting a pass but decided that was too risky at that stage.
“I could’ve kept it wide open and washed up into him, and it wasn’t the right move; it wasn’t what I would’ve wanted him to do to me,” said Newman, who used such a pass at Phoenix to finish in 11th and land a final-four spot.
He added, “If we were close enough on the last lap, it might have been a different game, but I wasn’t, and I slipped off of Turn 4 coming to the white, and at that point it was pretty much over.”
Newman had said before the race that he hoped the four series contenders would go four wide into the final turn to determine the outcome, and he almost got his wish. He had to settle for a duel between himself and Harvick and for second place in both the race and the series, the highest Cup finish of his career. Logano wound up in 16th place Sunday and ended the season in fourth.
Harvick credited the call by his crew chief, Rodney Childers, to get four tires on his last pit stop for the win.
As intense as the race was going into the final lap, Harvick said that he was relaxed and that he was able to keep his focus on finishing ahead of Newman and the others.
“It seemed like everything today was so normal,” Harvick said. “It seemed like when you are in that moment and in your element and doing the things that you do on a weekly basis, that was the easiest thing for me.
“The last thing that Tony Stewart told me today before I got in my car was: ‘You’re going to go through a lot of things today. You’re going to be ahead of guys and behind guys, but don’t ever quit until the checkered flag falls.’ In the end, that was ultimately true.”