HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — There was no trick to Kevin Harvick's first Sprint Cup championship. Competing for the title against three other drivers, he seized his opportunity with a relentless dash through the field in the closing laps of the season finale.
It was exactly what NASCAR was looking for when it revamped its playoff format this year to try to force drivers to win races.
Harvick picked off car after car, and passed two other title contenders on a series of restarts as he aggressively chased both the victory and the title Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His desperate drive from 12th to first over the final 15 laps gave Harvick the championship over Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.
All four were determined to claim their first career title, and all four raced to win — because winning, it turned out, mattered in this Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"If you want to win the championship, you're going to have to figure out how to win races," Harvick said. "In the end, that's what it came down to, was winning the race to win the championship. It all worked out."
The four drivers all found themselves racing each other at the front of the field after the sun went down on the 400-mile race. It was Hamlin, the Charlotte Bobcats season-ticket holder who had Michael Jordan cheering from his pit, who seemed to have the race in control until a caution with 20 laps to go.
All four teams were forced to make tough strategy decisions that ultimately decided their fate.
Joe Gibbs Racing decided not to pit Hamlin, which moved him to second on the restart. Richard Childress Racing gave Ryan Newman two tires, while Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers made the risky call for four tires.
Team Penske also had planned to give Joey Logano four tires, but a problem with the jack destroyed Logano's chances and he plummeted from sixth to 21st, ending his championship bid.
Harvick restarted 12th with 15 laps to go and not much time to pick his way through traffic. As Hamlin passed leader Jeff Gordon on the restart, Harvick shot past four cars to move to seventh.
"The seas kind of parted down the backstretch and we were able to get three or four cars or six, I guess, or five. You've got a very short time to do it," he said. "You had all the championship guys show up at the front of the pack. I was just going to hold the pedal down and hope for the best."
Then came another caution, and Hamlin, on old tires, knew he was in trouble. Harvick, on the four fresh tires, rocketed through the middle on the restart, dicing his way through traffic to pick up another four spots and move into second.
"I loved our chances, but they weren't there at the end," Hamlin said. "Strategy is part of winning, and the strategy for us didn't work out with the cautions."
Harvick got by Hamlin, then Newman passed Hamlin for second and the championship became a battle of drivers who had essentially swapped seats this year. There was one more caution, forcing Harvick to nail one final restart with three laps remaining, and he eased his way ahead of Newman on his way to the win.
The victory capped a magical first season at Stewart-Haas Racing, where Harvick moved this year after 13 seasons with Richard Childress that failed to produce a championship.
Harvick, who had to win last week at Phoenix just to advance into Sunday's final four, wrapped up his third victory of this Chase and fifth of the season. He leaned this week on team co-owner Tony Stewart, a three-time champion, and Jimmie Johnson, the six-time champion who moved from California to North Carolina to chase a career in NASCAR about the same time as Harvick made the move east.
"Been trying for 13 years," an emotional Harvick said. "This week ate me up. If it wasn't for Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, I would have been in bad trouble this week. Those guys really helped me get through the week. After every practice, Jimmie was in there, and in our team debriefs Tony was constantly telling me just to go race and that it's just another race."
Stewart shared an emotional hug with Harvick, and then beamed during the celebration.
"That's about as emotional as you can get, to have one of your greatest friends go out in one of your race cars and win a championship in the toughest series in the country," Stewart said.
Newman, winless on the season, finished second. Hamlin faded to seventh and Logano was a distant 16th.
Harvick's wife, DeLana, sobbed on the pit stand and buried her head in her hands when Harvick crossed the finish line. She hugged Childers, who dabbed his eyes, before she made it down to the victory celebration. She met Stewart, who had retired from the race earlier with a car problem and was in street clothes, for an embrace and kiss before holding her son for the victory celebration.
Harvick hugged Childers and showered his jubilant crew with Budweiser, the beer company that followed him this year from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas. Harvick spoke with a catch in his voice, trying to compose himself when it was his turn to hold 2-year-old Keelan.
Stewart threw his arms around Harvick and the close friends and teammates held each other tight for several moments. It was Stewart who in 2012 convinced Harvick that if he left RCR when his contract expired at the end of 2013, he could help Harvick win his first title.
Stewart, co-owner Gene Haas, and Childers, who left Michael Waltrip Racing for the chance to build Harvick's team, delivered.
"They gave us all the resources we needed," Harvick said. "We never talked about money, we talked about building a team. It was just go get what you need."
For Stewart, it took the sting off his 15-year winning streak coming to a close Sunday.
"It doesn't make up for a bad year," Stewart said. "I mean, I've had a terrible year. But this makes the end of November great."