DeLana Harvick could not get a grip on her emotions. Fortunately, and necessarily, her husband maintained unshakeable control of his own while confronting the most intense pressure in a 14-year career.
As DeLana heaved with deep sobs on the pit box through closing laps Sunday, Kevin Harvick steered to a Ford EcoBoost 400 victory and a cherished niche in stock car racing history.
With absolutely everything on the line in NASCAR’s radically revised 2014 Chase for the Cup, the 38-year-old Californian became a first-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
"Surreal," DeLana Harvick described the nerve-grinding, race-long dueling that culminated in the highlight of their lifetimes in racing.
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"This is what we race for," Kevin Harvick said simply. "These are the moments that you live for."
Harvick reached the pinnacle in his first season driving for team co-owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas after 13 years with Richard Childress Racing. There, he stepped into the seat vacated one week earlier by the death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Four drivers entered the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway knowing that the winner in their race-within-a-race would be crowned.
Ryan Newman, winless this year but a survivor through the crucible of three three-race elimination rounds, arrived as the stealth candidate.
But he posed the final threat after Joey Logano’s brush with the wall and his crew’s pit-road miscues crushed his hopes and then a late-race gamble on strategy backfired and undermined Denny Hamlin.
Harvick’s No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet and Newman’s No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy lined up side-by-side for the final restart after the mentally exhausting contest’s 13th caution period and with three laps remaining.
But Harvick, lined up on the outside, accelerated first and took a narrow advantage into the first-turn banking. "I was just going to hold the pedal down and hope for the best," Harvick said. "That was our strong point all night, the restarts."
All week, the four drivers had been questioned repeatedly about how far beyond accepted bounds they would be willing to go to assert their will in a late-race duel.
Newman had to answer that question in actions. "I thought about hauling it in there wide-open on Kevin and wash up into him, except that wasn’t the right thing to do. I wouldn’t have wanted him to do that to me."
He had most of three laps left to chase Harvick down but didn’t have to think about roughing him up on that last circuit of the high-banked 1.5-mile oval.
"I slipped off of Turn 4 coming to the white flag, and at that point it was pretty much over," he said of a bobble on tired tires.
That Harvick led the final eight laps shouldn’t have come as a surprise. He has led an astonishing 2,137 laps, about one in every five, through a season in which he routinely was the fastest man on the track.
Logano, at 24 in his sixth full Cup season, won five times in by far his career-best season. But it ended disappointingly. "We just didn’t execute," he said. "I got the wall a little bit early in the race, and we lost the shape of our car."
Still, he had recovered to eighth place when he pitted with 18 laps remaining. But the jack slipped while tires were off, the crew had difficulty jacking the car back up, and Logano exited the pit in 29th place.
That same caution for debris became pivotal in destroying a "statement" race for four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon as well as Hamlin’s chances.
They stayed on track rather than pit for fresh tires hoping the race might stay caution-free over those final 15 laps and those who pitted might have too much traffic to get back into contention.
But backmarkers J.J. Yeley and Blake Koch tangled and slammed the wall to bring out caution No. 12. Gordon inextricably pitted and yielded a lead he had maintained through 161 of the 267 laps.
That left Harvick, who had charged back from 12th, and Newman door to door for the restart and presented the final drama in a Chase for the Cup that provided great theater start to finish.
All four championship contenders made spirited bids. Harvick, Hamlin and Logano ran in the top five almost the entire race and Newman in the top 10.
At one point, the leading six were the four title aspirants and two drivers who between them have 10 championships, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Those two now welcome a new member in an elite club. Harvick’s victory was his first at Homestead, the 28th in his Cup career and by far the most rewarding.
Championship 4 results
How the Championship 4 contenders for the Sprint Cup title finished in the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway: