Week after week, fans were treated to some of the most intense, dramatic, and thrilling racing the sport has ever seen. Every race had its twists and turns, which set up for an incredible season finale.
Going into the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the possibilities were endless. For it being the first finale under the new format, no one knew what to expect.
How would the championship contenders stack-up? How will the race finish? What role would strategy play? All these questions were valid going in, and now the answer can be summed up in one world – incredible.
What was incredible? Everything. From the drop of the green-flag, to the contenders being so close for much of the event, to strategy calls ultimately decided the 2014 champion – each moment of the race was more exciting than anything I have ever witnessed before.
For much of the 400 miles, it was a waiting game. The Championship 4 just needed to survive in order to have a shot at claiming the title. Making a mistake early would likely take a team out of contention before they really had a chance to compete.
Once the final 50 laps arrived, it was no longer about surviving. It turned into an all-out battle to claim the ultimate glory.
Frequent cautions late in the going set up multiple restarts that left fans on the edge of their seats. Each time the field went back under the green-flag, it was difficult to predict who would hold the lead coming off Turn 2. It was too close to call for much of the final 20 laps, which led to teams trying to find any slight advantage.
The easiest place to gain that leg-up is on pit road. All four teams took advantage of that, which led to four diverse strategies deciding the outcome.
Denny Hamlin made the riskiest gamble by staying out and taking a chance on older tires. Had the race gone caution-free until the end, that strategy would have likely worked. However, the field was slowed a couple more times which allowed the pack to restart even with the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry.
Ultimately, the older tires caught up with Hamlin, which benefited Kevin Harvick. Rodney Childers’ decision to take four tires turned out to be the call of the year. The multiple yellow-flags in the final run allowed Harvick to continuously gain spots and by the final restart, he was able to reclaim the lead.
Surprisingly, the dark horse coming into the day, Ryan Newman, turned out to be his closest competitor. Newman split other strategies by taking just two-tires. This allowed him to eventually get around Hamlin, and attempt to chase down the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet.
His effort was very impressive as he quickly turned into the second best car on the track in the final 20 laps after struggling to stay inside the top-five for much of the evening.
While pit road made a positive difference for Harvick and Newman, it cost Joey Logano the championship. During a late stop, the car fell off the jack and Logano spent an extended period of time on pit road. This put him deep in the field, and took the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford team out of contention.
The final three laps were some of the most dramatic the sport has ever seen as Harvick slowly inched away from a hard-charging Newman. Fans didn’t blink as they awaited a possible diving move by the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, much like what had occurred during the final lap in Phoenix.
The move never came and Harvick was able to close out the most dramatic race of the year by taking the checkered-flag and claiming his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
The raw emotion that followed in the Championship Victory Lane from Harvick himself, along with wife DeLana and co-owner Tony Stewart gave fans a glimpse at just how much this title means.
It was a hard-fought race and Chase as this team never gave up and ultimately finished on top. The drive each member of the crew showed after bouncing back from hardships such as the Martinsville wreck shows just how much heart and soul was poured into this title effort.
Harvick admitted he was exhausted during an interview as he worked so hard to be able to celebrate. The road to the championship wasn’t easy, but I’m sure Harvick would tell you just how much the effort paid off in the end.
Congratulations Kevin Harvick, the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet team, and Stewart-Haas Racing on an incredible season and the 2014 Sprint Cup Series Championship.
Photo Credit: Sean Gardner