NASCAR chairman Brian France gambled hugely when he restructured the format of this year’s Sprint Cup to create “Game 7 moments.” No more nursing points leads in the final race. The drivers would have to go all out to win in nine preliminary races. The final four contestants then would have to go all out to win the last event.
Problem was the process eliminated the biggest stars from “Game 7.” Although Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon were in the field at Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, they were cut from the Chase itself. Under the old system, they would have been contending for the title on the final day.
And in spite of the emphasis on winning instead of collecting points, one of the four finalists, Ryan Newman, did not have a win all year, while Keselowski had a series-leading six firsts, including one in a Chase event. Go figure. No, don’t even try. It’s too complicated.
Suffice to say the stage was set for a not so grand finale in which the winner was likely to be someone who wasn’t competing for the title.
In effect, there would be two races at Homestead, Fla.: the race to win the EcoBoost, for whatever that’s worth, and the battle for the Sprint Cup, which would go to the best finisher of the final four.
Of even more concern than an anticlimactic finish was the prospect of another Demolition Derby that had blighted several recent elimination races. In the pre-race media conferences, finalists Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano made no secret of their dislike of each other.
This feud has raged for four years. It even involves Harvick’s wife DeLana, former manager of Kevin Harvick Incorporated. Logano could not resist saying in 2010, “She wears the fire suit in that family.”
Another of Sunday’s finalists, Denny Hamlin, predicted the Homestead race would feature more bumping strategy, and he expected Logano’s teammate Keselowski to be part of it, as he usually is.
Fortunately for this sport, the two races merged beautifully. France rolled a lucky seven for Game 7. In a fascinating spectacle marred only by a near-record 13 cautions, the finish came down to three of the final four: Hamlin, Newman and Harvick, all racing cleanly despite bumper-car action from too many non-contenders.
As is often the case, this race was decided as much on pit road as it was on the track itself. Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, made the right calls in the pit while others did not.
The 24-year-old Logano, cruising along in the top ten, got waylaid in a pit stop with 17 laps remaining. His Ford fell off its jacks – the sort of error you would not expect from a Roger Penske crew. Logano emerged from the delay in 21st place and could not recover.
The next team to malfunction was Hamlin’s. He led late in the race, and his crew chief, Darian Grubb, decided to keep him on the track with worn-down tires rather than pit with the other Chasers.
The strategy might have worked were it not for three more yellow flags bunching up the field and erasing most of Hamlin’s margin. Harvick, 15th on the restart after his final tire change, drove hard but smart to pick off car after car, including, eventually, Hamlin’s, to seize the front when he was seven laps from the end.
The finish of the race was a duel between Harvick and Newman, whose crew chief, Luke Lambert, may have lost it on the decisive pit stop by opting for two new tires instead of four. The few seconds it would have taken to add two more tires to the “Chevy” (I use quotes because these race cars bear only a superficial resemblance to their namesakes) would have been more than offset by time saved on the track.
In defense of Lambert, he was worried more about the leader at the time, Hamlin, than he was about Harvick. Lambert figured Newman would prevail, two fresh tires to none.
When Newman, hoping to be a Cinderella story, latched onto Harvick, there was little chance for a pass. Harvick, just a few feet in front, skillfully blocked the inside lane, and Newman had the grace not to try a bump-and-run.
So the race and the Cup went to the 38-year-old Harvick, who’s not one of the big names of the sport, this being his first NASCAR championship. But he’s worthy of his belated honors. He led more laps this year than any other driver, and this was his fifth win – a number exceeded only by the relentless Keselowski, who finished third at Homestead and had, surprisingly, no run-ins during the race or after.
“I think this Chase is about the best thing that has happened to this sport over the last decade,” Harvick said following the trophy presentation. But he added, “This new format has been so stressful. . . . I’m gonna sleep for a week.”
He was standing by his wife, and holding their 2-year-old son Keelan. Despite her intimate ties to the sport, DeLana will point the kid away from racing. “We would hope for golf – really, anything other than racing and football.”
NASCAR is never lacking in irony, and there was plenty here. Harvick, from Bakersfield, Calif., drove for Richard Childress for 14 seasons before switching this year to Stewart-Haas Racing, which fired Newman, who then took the ride from Childress that had been Harvick’s.
There was some redemption for Tony Stewart, 43rd and last in Sunday’s race but sharing in the Cup championship as co-owner of the winning car. He was the culprit in one of car-racing’s most horrific tragedies, when he was investigated – though not charged – in the killing of Kevin Ward Jr. on Aug. 9, on a sprint-car track in upper New York.
For all the drama created by the new format, it remains to be seen if it reverses the eight-year decline in NASCAR popularity. Although Sunday’s race was announced as a sellout, many of the 45,000 seats were covered by sponsor banners.
There may be no getting around the fact that the showcase event of NASCAR takes place near the beginning of the season: the Daytona 500 in February. Everything after that seems fated to be an anticlimax. Even so, as we bid goodbye to it, this Sprint Cup season was a thrilling ride to the end.