It was no secret that Kevin Harvick was the clear favorite heading into last weekend’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. He had been the fastest driver all year, thanks to Rodney Childers and the whole No. 4 team at Stewart-Haas Racing. It was only a question of if he could deliver under the pressure in a literal “must-win” situation. He needed to win the race to clinch an automatic bid into the championship round, and he did exactly that – in dominating fashion.
The race did not start too well for Harvick and the No. 4 team though. He was loose everywhere on the track throughout his first run, but when the first caution for debris on the afternoon came out, the crew chief, Childers, took a big swing at adjusting the handling of the car, and the rest was history.
When the field came back to the green flag, Harvick’s car came to life, quickly taking the lead away from Joey Logano and never looked back.
There did come a point towards the end of the race where the win was in doubt. Harvick and his team have had bad luck all season long. Whether it was a hub overheating, a blown engine, punctured tires in the same place at the same track twice in the same season, getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in an accident or in pit sequences, the No. 4 team has experienced it all when it comes to bad luck.
However, with a pivotal pit call looming, Childers kept Harvick on the track, opting not to get fresh tires to stay with track position and clean air. In the end, it was the right move, sending Harvick to victory lane for the fourth time this season and for the fourth out of the last five times he has traveled to Phoenix.
“Wow, I guess that’s what it feels like to hit a walk-off in extra innings there,” said Harvick in victory lane, after what was arguably the biggest win of his career. “I could tell that we were probably going to have to win because everybody was running up in the front of the pack that we were racing against.”
According to Harvick, being able to run for a championship was “like a dream.”
Harvick will be one of four drivers eligible for the championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He will be joined by Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman, with the one who finishes highest in the running order out of those four drivers winning the title. Plain and simple.
Let us look a little deeper at each driver and their chances entering the season finale and who I think will end up hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy in victory lane this weekend.
This team has been the story of the Chase. Newman has zero wins this season when NASCAR wanted to emphasize wins, as consistency has been their point of emphasis. While everybody was worried about getting wins all season to lock them into the Chase, Newman and the No. 31 team were being consistent, running in the top 15 all afternoon, but by the time the checkered flag flew, he was somehow in the top five or top 10.
That consistency has vaulted him into the championship round with a shot to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship. He has also proven he will do whatever it takes, as we saw how he ran Kyle Larson into the wall in order to pass him, that one position that he needed in order to transfer into the next round.
However, that consistency will not be enough in this race to win the title, and the No. 31 team’s magical run will come to an end at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
His relationship with crew chief Todd Gordon has blossomed this season, accumulating five wins, eclipsing his career total entering this season by three.
He, along with his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, have been fast all year, especially at intermediate tracks, which is what Homestead is. He is only 24 years-old, and the lack of experience in these types of situations will prove that he is not worthy of a championship this season. Like they all say, you have to lose a championship before you win one. This could not be more true for Logano and the No. 22 team this season.
The driver of the No. 11 car won this upcoming race last year and has been statistically phenomenal at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Just like Newman, consistency has brought Hamlin into the final round. He only has one win in 2014 and has been in the top ten week in and week out. He has lost a championship before, as he was the points leader heading into the season finale in 2011, but was edged by Jimmie Johnson for the championship. Although many attest that you have to lose a championship before you can win one, Hamlin’s campaign will come up short.
As mentioned, the No. 4 car has lived up to its sponsor, Jimmy Johns’, slogan, being “Freaky Fast” all season long, week in and week out.
The 1.5-mile intermediate tracks have been very strong for Harvick, and at a test at Homestead-Miami last week, they believe that they found some things that will be able to help them this weekend.
Harvick has lost a championship before. He has been in the Cup Series for 14 years. He moved to Stewart-Haas Racing from Richard Childress Racing in order to be in the position that he is in right now, the opportunity to win a championship.
He will capitalize on this and close the deal, winning his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. This is based on just pure speed and the driver. He has proven to us in his career that he is not afraid to ruffle some feathers, and with the biggest race of his career coming up, I do not expect him to race any differently. He will predictably be offensive, lead laps and live up to his nickname, “The Closer”, closing out his best season ever with a championship.
The broadcast will air live from Homestead-Miami Speedway at 3:00 p.m. EST on ABC, and I will actually be at the race track to witness history, as a first time champion will be crowned, no matter who it may be.
Davey Segal is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports.