By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
LAS VEGAS—As the culmination of a calculated risk that led to a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, the NASCAR industry joined together Friday night at the Wynn to honor 2014 titleholder Kevin Harvick, who claimed stock car racing’s most coveted prize in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing.
In his speech at the Sprint Cup Awards Banquet, Harvick revealed just how much of a risk he took in changing teams after the 2013 season.
“After 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing, I made the move to Stewart-Haas Racing,” said Harvick, who joined forces with long-time friend and SHR co-owner Tony Stewart this year. “And I have to admit, I was scared to death. I tried to play it cool, but it was a pivotal moment in my career.
“I was venturing outside my comfort zone, and I had to make it work. Tony, I consider you to be one of my best friends. You promised me if I came to Stewart-Haas Racing, we would win a championship, and we did just that. You are a man of your word.”
In the first year of a new elimination format for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Harvick claimed the title with victories in the final two races. His win at Phoenix International Raceway propelled him into the Championship Round of the Chase at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he secured the title by triumphing in the season finale.
All told, Harvick won five races, three in the Chase, won a career-best eight poles and led a series-best 2,137 laps. From day one at SHR, he showed tremendous speed.
“The first time I was able to get in my No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet, we were fast,” Harvick said. “It didn’t matter if it was an open test at Charlotte last December. A practice, a qualifying session or a race—we wanted to be at the top of the board.”
Nor was Harvick hesitant in offering praise to the architect of his race team, crew chief Rodney Childers.
“He built new race cars and assembled a whole new group of guys between the end of the 2013 season right until we loaded up for the Daytona 500,” Harvick said. “Under his direction, we accomplished a lot and became great friends in the process.
“From the lead-up to the Daytona 500 until the checkered flag dropped at Homestead, Rodney asked for a lot from our people on this race team. Rodney, I can’t say thank you enough for all that you’ve done.”
In accepting the championship owner’s award, SHR co-owner Gene Haas pointed out that both titles won by the organization since he partnered with Stewart in 2009 required drivers Stewart (2011) and Harvick to win the final race of the season at Homestead.
And in fact, Harvick finished one position and a mere half-second ahead of series runner-up Ryan Newman in the season finale.
“We were one point away from our best finish of the season at Homestead,” Newman said after leaving the stage.
The overwhelming consensus among the 16 drivers who appeared during the ceremony was that the new Chase format had transformed the sport.
“Even though we didn’t make it to Homestead to battle for the championship, I truly believe NASCAR got it right this year with the new knockout format for the Sprint Cup,” said Jeff Gordon, who won four times in 2014 but was eliminated from the Chase at Phoenix by a single point.
“I cannot begin to describe the pressure and the intensity we faced week after week, race after race—and this year crowned a deserving champion.”
For the 12th straight year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was named the NMPA Sprint Most Popular Driver. Earnhardt, who finished eighth in the final standings, began posting on Twitter this year after his victory in the 2014 Daytona 500 and talked about how gratifying it was to see his timeline explode with tweets from fans who said they had voted for him as Most Popular Driver.
One of the most touching moments of the evening was the awarding of the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award to Daniel Noltemeyer, a founder of the Best Buddies of Kentucky, an organization dedicated to facilitating the social inclusion of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
Noltemeyer, who has Down syndrome, has become an enthusiastic ambassador for Best Buddies International. One of four national finalists, Noltemeyer received a $100,000 grant for his charity as the winner of the award, which was conferred for the fourth year.