Craig Murto: Harvick’s Chase crown legitimate

Kevin Harvick won the 400-mile race at Homestead-Miami Speedway last Sunday to become the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

But even before the race, questions regarding the legitimacy of this year’s points system led many to believe there should be an asterisk next to the champion’s name.

At Phoenix the week before, Harvick’s back was against the wall. He had to win the race in order to become one of the four drivers competing for the title. In response he drove his No. 4, Budweiser-sponsored Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to a dominant win.

At Homestead he ran up front all day, but he didn’t dominate. In the end the winning move was to relinquish track position on a late-race yellow-flag pit stop to take four tires when others took none or only two. A number of cautions late in the race helped Harvick make up position on the track, and four tires win every time.

Social media exploded immediately after the race. Mario Andretti posted on Facebook, “Best way to win a title is with a race win. Finally you (Kevin Harvick) will get the credit you deserve for a fab season.”

And Langley Austin, a Virginia race promoter and principal at www.race22.com, posted, “Bravo NASCAR. No Matter how this ends, they hit a grand slam walk-off home run with this new Chase format. I know you old people don’t like it, but this is the way it should be. It’s brought excitement all season.”

But there are just as many people who didn’t like it, such as former NASCAR reporter Monte Dutton, who called the Chase a “damned disgrace.”

Many also observed that using a “normal” points system, Jeff Gordon would have already clinched the championship following Phoenix.

So, is Harvick the legitimate champion?

The rules were the same for everybody. At Daytona there were 43 cars in the field, any of which could have been celebrating the championship at the end of the year if the combination of performance and luck worked in their favor.

Ryan Newman finished second at Homestead, and second in the points. Many cited Newman’s very presence in the top four as a flaw with the system, since he hadn’t visited Victory Lane all year. But what they fail to recognize — or simply don’t want to admit — is that every points system NASCAR has used left the possibility open for someone to win the championship without winning a race. In fact, four times the champion only had a single victory at the end of the season.

The new system worked, and it worked just as it was designed to work. As early as March teams will be racing harder than they have in years past to get a win, just to ensure they’re in the Chase. And once the Chase begins, teams will be racing for wins, not stroking and settling for a “good points day.”

Old school fans don’t like this because it’s something new. It’s something completely different. But it also makes the racers drive their cars to the limit nearly every lap.

Just look at how the teams that made the final four stepped up their performance at Homestead. At one point the four championship contenders were all in the top six positions on the track. Nobody held back.

And in the end it was a good decision by crew chief Rodney Childers that won the championship. But it wasn’t handed to Harvick; he had to race for it, and race hard.

The racing was the best we’ve seen in years. From a fan’s point of view, what could be better? The format does not allow racers to just accumulate a lot of points early and cruise. No more “if driver X finishes 26th or better he’s the champ” scenarios.

The last few races of the Chase were nearly sold out, if in fact there were any seats available. What could be better from a promoter’s point of view? And the sports media paid attention throughout the Chase.

Sure, Jeff Gordon would have been champion under a different points system. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have been champion last year if the 2014 system were in place. Or would he? The new system certainly changed the way drivers raced.

Is Kevin Harvick the legitimate NASCAR Sprint Cup champion? Yes, he is. The Chase format was the same for everybody, and Harvick performed like a champion when he needed to perform.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.