It was some six hours after Kevin Harvick had won his first Sprint Cup championship when he was finally able to peel off his beer-soaked firesuit, take a shower and begin celebrating the biggest moment of his career.
Harvick had changed into shorts and a T-shirt, and wandered through the infield at Homestead-Miami Speedway wearing flip-flops looking for some friends and a cold Budweiser. He munched on a plate of hot dogs, smiled ear-to-ear, but didn’t seem able to process what he’d just accomplished.
”Can you believe this?” NASCAR’s newest champion asked almost every well-wisher.
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Sure they could, Happy.
He was a worthy winner of NASCAR’s revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which successfully put the emphasis on victories over the final two races. Harvick had been forced to win at Phoenix just to advance to Sunday’s finale against Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman for the title.
All four teams were on top of their game, and it became apparent as they ran in order at the front of the pack that it would likely take a victory to wrap up the title.
So Harvick used a masterful drive through the field, using restarts and four fresh tires to pick his way from 12th to victory lane over the final 15 hectic laps. The reward was a championship he had chased for 13 years at Richard Childress Racing before making the life-changing decision to move to Stewart-Haas Racing this season.
He had been convinced by good friend Tony Stewart that if he switched teams, Stewart could help him win that coveted title. It was a leap of faith, but one he and his wife, DeLana, were willing to take after re-assessing their priorities following the birth of their son.
”Tony was pretty adamant that we could race for wins and championships,” Harvick said, explaining he’d reached a point where he no longer enjoyed his job at RCR. ”Whether I finished third or fourth … I just wasn’t excited about going to work. I needed to be excited about going to work, and this just gave me an opportunity to race with one of my good friends.”
Once Harvick was on board, SHR began the process of finding him a crew chief to help build his team.
Harvick and others courted Rodney Childers, who really liked his job but didn’t see many championship chances coming his way at Michael Waltrip Racing. Like Harvick, Childers needed some persuading; He and Harvick joke they spent a year dating as Harvick tried to develop a rapport that would prompt him to leave MWR.
It was Stewart who sealed the deal, flying from his home in Indiana to North Carolina to meet with Childers.
”I wasn’t even going to take the job until Tony got in his airplane,” Childers said. ”On my drive home, I said, `If anybody is willing to do that for me and spend that kind of money for me, they’re going to look after me.’ He looked me in the eyes that night and said, `We’re going to do this.”’
By the time Harvick started at SHR last December, Childers had a fleet of fast Chevrolets waiting for him. The team Childers had built for Harvick turned heads from their very first test session. When they won their second race together, it became evident this was a championship-contending team – one that was a stalwart even as SHR was rocked by Stewart’s involvement in a deadly sprint car crash.
”To be a part of building something, it really changed my life,” Harvick said. ”I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my whole life than I have been this year. From a personal standpoint, from a professional standpoint, you see all the things that you have around you, and you’re lucky. I’m pretty lucky to be able to do what I used to pay to do for a hobby. I have no idea how much money I make. I love showing up to work, I love coming to the race track and love what I do. And it’s been a long, long time since I could sit up here and honestly tell you that I love the experience of everything.”
So it made sense that the post-race celebration was emotional. DeLana was crying on the pit box before her husband even took the checkered flag. Childers was moved to tears on the championship stage and Harvick’s voice cracked as he held 2-year-old Keelan.
And then there was Stewart, who retired from the race and watched the finish from his motorhome. He made it to the celebration in street clothes, found Harvick and grabbed him in a long, tight embrace. Stewart had made good on his promise.
”It’s not about me right now; it’s about us as a group,” he said. ”I’m really proud to not only have a teammate, but most of all, one of my best friends be out there taking pictures as champion this year. That’s a great feeling to be up here and be a part of that with both of these guys.”