Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Kevin Harvick’s Sprint Cup triumph validates NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup system

Family time:  Kevin Harvick, his wife, DeLana, and son Keelan Paul Harvick celebrate winning the NASCAR 2014 Sprint Cup championship and the  Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Family time: Kevin Harvick, his wife, DeLana, and son Keelan Paul Harvick celebrate winning the NASCAR 2014 Sprint Cup championship and the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Miami Herald staff

Kevin Harvick won big. NASCAR won bigger.

Harvick won twice Sunday down at Homestead-Miami Speedway, finishing first in the race and thus winning the main Sprint Cup season championship. And the sport won much-needed validation for its latest Chase for the Cup format changes, getting just what it hoped for in a dramatic, winner-take-all finish.

Only four drivers were contending for the crown in the field of 43 cars, and two of the finalists were a split-second apart on the last lap as Harvick outdueled Ryan Newman in a thrilling late surge that had 75,000 race fans on their feet. It was Harvick’s first NASCAR championship, at age 38, and it was deserved. He had won four races, had 13 top-five finishes this year and was No.1 by a lot in total laps led.

Sunday he led 54 of the 267, and the only one that mattered.

Harvick’s wife, DeLana, was up on the pit stand fighting tears, her breath heaving, as her husband fought for the crown in the final minutes. When his red No.4 Chevrolet flashed under the checkered flag she dissolved into tears, her face buried in her hands.

“One of the longest last laps of my life,” she would say later, smiling.

Harvick later held their 2-year-old toddler, Keelan, who raised a tiny index finger to mimic his father but was too busy fiddling with the bill of the ballcap that dwarfed his head to follow any further instructions.

Harvick spoke of the 10-week Chase for the Cup — by any other name NASCAR’s playoffs — as “mental exhaustion that I’d never experienced before.” He said, “This week ate me up.”

No wonder he said afterward, “I’m going to sleep for a week!”

That same sense of relief should have been washing over NASCAR on Sunday for how its latest tinkering and tweaking of the Chase format turned out. All four finalists, including Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, were jockeying in the top 10 most of the day.

“You had all the championship guys show up at the front of the pack,” as Harvick put it.

As a bonus, you had bigger stars and fan favorites Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson also haunting the leaderboard much of the day. Gordon, who had most narrowly missed making the Final Four, would lead the most laps, 161, but finish 10th.

It would have been better for TV ratings and general interest to have the marquee heft of Gordon, “Junior” or Johnson competing for the title, but Harvick was the ideal winner from the last four. He was perhaps the best driver to have not won a title.

And it culminated Harvick’s first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, whose owner, Tony Stewart, has had such a trying year personally after accidentally striking and killing another driver, Kevin Ward, who wandered on the track in a sprint-car race on Aug.9 in New York.

Stewart missed several NASCAR races after the tragedy, endured a rare winless season as a driver and finished last in Sunday’s race. But he got to celebrate as an owner Sunday.

“It’s not about me right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I’d like to change about the last six months, but tonight’s not one of them.”

This year — the 13th that NASCAR has culminated its season in Homestead — marked the debut of the format that reduced the field from 16 title contenders to 12 to eight to four, of whom the highest finisher Sunday would be champion.

It is meant to ensure drama in the finale. In years past, a driver entering Homestead might have such a big points lead that he could finish near the back of the pack and still win, a lesson in anticlimax.

Plainly, NASCAR got lucky Sunday, the best possible result with a 1-2 finish by two of its four finalists. There might be years that a finish of, say 12th, is good enough, with whomever is second well behind.

NASCAR got lucky in another way Sunday.

It avoided the embarrassment of crowning an overall season champ who hadn’t won a single race all year. That could have been Newman. And that would have been a first in the 65-year history of the league. Newman had only four top-five finishes. He led a grand total of 41 laps all season. (Harvick led 2,137.)

Yes, it might have been a great story if Newman had edged Harvick at the finish and the only race he won all year was for the title. But what if he had finished 10th and backed into it? All anyone would be talking about today was how a driver can possibly be called the best in his sport if he never won any of 36 races.

“We didn’t win any battles, but we sure came close to winning the war,” as Newman himself put it.

That would have been great for him, bad for the sport. If it would have called the new format into not just question, but ridicule.

NASCAR chairman Brian France made clear the aim of the changes when announcing the new format in January, saying, “It’s going to make winning the most important thing by a wide margin.”

He had softened by last week to accommodate the fact Newman had won zero races and another finalist, Hamlin, had only one. Now he spoke of “the balance between winning and consistency.”

No. Winning still must be the point, even a prerequisite. Why not have only race winners eligible for the season crown and arrange the starting grid at Homestead based on number of victories? Why not have only champions vying for the championship?

But enough of that. What did happen was close enough to perfect, just the latest example of how sports seems to have such a way of writing great endings.

Sunday was that. It was for Kevin Harvick. It was for Tony Stewart. And it was, maybe most of all, for NASCAR.

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