HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart are blood brothers.
In triumph. In tragedy.
They bear-hugged for an extended time in Victory Lane after Harvick held off Ryan Newman to win the 2014 Sprint Cup championship Sunday night. Finally, through the depressive funk that no one could see behind closed doors, Stewart could finally smile, relax, inhale.
His involvement in a dirt-track accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. in August crushed Stewart, turning him into a recluse for weeks. He was never the same, really, even though he would eventually return to close out the NASCAR season. He finished 25th Sunday, marking his first winless season in 15 years.
But there he was, hugging it out with Harvick. His guy, his best friend, and the driver he recruited to join Stewart-Haas Racing this season. A champion.
The great salve.
“When it comes down to the bottom of the ninth, that’s the guy I want in my corner,” Stewart said.
Boom. Home run.
Often referred to jokingly as “Happy,” Harvick snatched his 2-year-old son from the arms of wife DeLana and, after putting a hat on him, asked: “Can you say, ‘Can you believe Daddy won?’''
Harvick woke up at 5 a.m. Sunday after falling asleep watching the Florida State-Miami football game Saturday night. It had been an exhausting week. Stewart, a three-time champion, had warned him as much. Harvick tried to process all of the advice from his boss, “Smoke,” and from six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a friend and an ally in the final week of the season.
Finally, Harvick was ready to roll at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick joined the other contenders — Newman, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin — in a best-man-to-the-finish to crown a champion under the revamped Chase for the Cup format.
The usual NASCAR yin-and-yang ensued once everybody got going for a 400-mile whirl along the racetrack. Pit stops and cautions affected race strategy. Logano saw his day ruined after his car fell off the jack during a pit stop with less than 20 laps remaining.
Finally, it came down to a five-lap sprint after the final restart, just two laps after Harvick passed Hamlin for the lead. Harvick shot out in front of Newman, who got close enough to tap him out of the way but nixed the idea.
“It wasn’t the right thing to do,” Newman said.
And so Harvick was clear, winning his first Cup title since he made the move to the sport’s highest level of competition in 2001.
“For me there’s nothing better than to see my friend smile,” Harvick said,
“More than anything I’m happy for this organization,” Stewart said. “I’m happy for this team. It’s not about me right now.”
Truthfully, it’s about both of them. Harvick and Stewart connect for obvious reasons — they are among the greatest race car drivers on the planet, each bringing an edgy competitive fire to the track every week.
For Stewart, that obviously dissipated this year.
But it’s also been a bumpy ride for Harvick. He replaced the iconic Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the Chevy ride for Richard Childress Racing in 2001. Childress and a few associates from RCR summoned Harvick, only 25, to his office outside Charlotte, N.C., in the middle of the night. A half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s was on the desk. The alcohol was for medicinal purposes — they were still mourning the death of Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Childress then asked Harvick to do the impossible:
Replace Dale Earnhardt.
They gave him the number 29 instead of 3 to take some of the pressure off, but it was still monumental.
“It was a little overwhelming to start with,” Harvick said a few years ago.
And now here he was, 13 years later, beating Newman, the new RCR guy, to the finish.
“I’m a firm believer in karma,” Harvick said during the contenders’ press conference earlier in the week. “At some point it comes full circle.”
Karma, or coincidence, one thing is certain:
Kevin Harvick is your 2014 Sprint Cup champion.