Homestead, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Kevin Harvick captured his first championship in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series by winning Sunday's season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Harvick, in his first season as driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, passed Denny Hamlin for the lead with eight laps remaining and then held off Ryan Newman following the last restart with three laps to go. He beat Newman to the finish line by a half-second for his fifth win of the season and the 28th of his Sprint Cup career.
Harvick's crew chief, Rodney Childers, elected to make a four-tire change during his final pit stop with less than 20 laps left, dropping him to 12th in the field. But Harvick benefited from two cautions in the closing laps to move to the front.
"It came down to a pit call, and I thought we were in big trouble here, but Rodney Childers and all these guys (No. 4 team) did an amazing job," said Harvick, who led a total of 54 laps.
Last weekend, Harvick won at Phoenix -- the elimination race in the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- to automatically advance into the final four for Homestead. Newman, Hamlin and Joey Logano were the other title contenders in this 400-mile event. Harvick came to Phoenix eighth in points.
In 2004, NASCAR instituted a playoff format to determine the championship for its premier series, but this year, NASCAR radically changed the format by expanding the field of drivers in the Chase to 16 and adding elimination rounds. The highest finisher of the final four title-eligible drivers at Homestead would win the title.
"I think this Chase is probably the best thing that has happened to this sport over the last decade, and this is probably going to shorten the drivers' careers because it's been so stressful," Harvick said.
Hamlin ended up finishing seventh, while Logano placed 16th. Logano had a mishap during a late-race round of pit stops. His car came off the jack stand during his tire change, dropping him as far back as 26th.
All four drivers had been running among the top-10 for a majority of this 267- lap, 400-mile race.
"It was a heck of a race up there," said Logano, who completed his second season with Team Penske. "I screwed up and hit the wall early, and we were able to recover. Then had the mistake on pit road, which didn't give us enough time to recover from that. It is unfortunate. Execution was our strong point all year, and we just didn't do it tonight."
Newman, who was the only one of the four drivers that did not win a race this season, started 21st but patiently made his way through the field and became a contender to win this event in the closing laps. His second-place run marked his best finish of the season. This was Newman's first season as driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.
"I drove my heart out, there's no doubt about that," Newman said. "The guys (No. 31 team) did an awesome job all year long. We fought back hard. We were one spot short and probably one caution too many for us. But that's the way it happens. That's part of racing. Kevin and those guys did a good job of putting themselves in position and had the better tires in the end and, it paid off for them."
Hamlin ran strong in the late going but opted not to pit when Harvick, Newman and Logano came in for new tires during a caution. After a restart, Hamlin pulled ahead of Jeff Gordon for the lead, but several laps later, Harvick made his winning pass.
This race featured 13 cautions, including four within the final 30 laps.
"We had a championship-type car, championship-type effort, but those last breaks (cautions) just didn't go our way," Hamlin said. "I thought once our car really came into its own as soon as it went dark, and I thought we had the best car, and we just struggled with restart speed."
Hamlin has driven for Joe Gibbs Racing throughout his Sprint Cup career. He won last year's season-finale at Homestead.
Brad Keselowski finished third, followed by Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth. Gordon started on the pole and led 161 of 267 laps but faded in the late stages to finish 10th. Clint Bowyer placed eighth, and Jimmie Johnson, who won his sixth Sprint Cup championship one year ago, was ninth.
Harvick, a 38-year-old Bakersfield, California native, became the 30th different driver to win a championship in the 66-year history of the series. His maiden title occurred in his 14th season. He spent his first 13 years with Richard Childress Racing.
"Been trying for 13 years," Harvick said of winning a Sprint Cup championship. "I just have to thank (SHR co-owner) Tony Stewart and (fellow competitor) Jimmie Johnson for helping me through this week. Jimmie was in my trailer as much many of my teammates, and calling me and on the phone, doing all the things that it takes to tell me what I needed to do today...This new (Chase) format has been stressful, but the racing has been phenomenal."
Harvick delivered SHR its second Sprint Cup owners' championship. Stewart won the series title in 2011, beating Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker.
"You couldn't ask for two guys that are cooler under pressure than Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick," Stewart said. "I'm so proud of them. I have a small feeling this is just the beginning."
Childers became the 37th different crew chief to win a championship. He had served as crew chief at Michael Waltrip Racing before he moved over to SHR prior to the start of this season to guide Harvick's efforts.
"I felt good all weekend, and the guys did an excellent job," Childers said. "Kevin did an excellent job, and I felt like we came down here (to Homestead) as prepared as we could be, and I was actually okay if it went good or bad."
Stewart finished 43rd after he experienced engine trouble late in the race. His 15-year streak of winning at least one race in a season came to an end. The three-time Cup champion has not been to victory lane since June 2013.
Kyle Larson, who placed 13th at Homestead, won rookie-of-the-year honors in the series.
"We've gotten better throughout the season, and it's just a huge honor to win this title with all the other names that have won it," Larson said.