AT THE MANDATORY drivers' meeting two hours before last Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400, the final race of the 2014 Sprint Cup season, NASCAR president Mike Helton sounded a note of caution. Looking out at the 43 drivers scattered among the scores of corporate bigwigs and sponsor reps gathered under a vast white canopy in the garage area of Homestead-Miami Speedway, a stern-looking Helton said, "It's very important that today's result unfolds naturally."
Helton was warning against any rough-and-tumble or overt team collusion on the track, but he might just as well have been speaking about the sport's new championship format. He needn't have worried. Sunday's race delivered clean action and, more to the point, a dramatic and clear-cut climax to the season and an indisputable champion—Kevin Harvick.
It was an outcome few anticipated when NASCAR announced its revamped playoff system before the season. Stock car fans went from rolling their eyes at the news of yet another tweak to the Chase for the Cup—the fourth since the 10-race "postseason" was introduced in 2004—to scratching their heads over the new format.
The newest version of the Chase seemed little more than a clumsy attempt to borrow from the championships in other sports. There was a March Madness--style bracket to winnow a field of 16 contenders down to a final four; there were three elimination races meant to evoke the Game 7 scenarios of the major leagues; and there was Sunday's winner-take-all finale, a speedway Super Bowl.
NASCAR's cut-and-paste job wound up producing something quite genuine, though, and surprising: emotion. That's not easily done in a sport in which the stars are hidden within shaded helmets, sponsor-emblazoned fire suits and 3,300-pound cars—and, off the track, stay relentlessly on script.
That wasn't always the case, of course. NASCAR's breakout from regional pastime to national entertainment can be traced to Bobby Allison's whaling on Cale Yarborough after the 1979 Daytona 500. Over the years, though, NASCAR—eager to attract mainstream sponsors and mass appeal—clamped down on driver misconduct.
But, slowly, the suits are attempting to point the sport back toward its more colorful roots. And, once the new Chase went into effect, offering a familiar structure for drama—win, or go home—it got real and fast.
Harvick, an unflappable Sprint Cup veteran, would later confess that, as the Chase unfolded, the new urgency to survive and advance (with four drivers eliminated from contention after the third, sixth and ninth races) had turned him into a nauseous insomniac. Midway through the second round, the normally mild-mannered Matt Kenseth jumped Brad Keselowski in the garage area after the Oct. 11 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And then, of course, in round three, Jeff Gordon emerged with a bloody lip, fresh from his own tussle with Keselowski. "I think for me, it's just the most intense situation I've been in in my racing career," Harvick said of the Chase after prevailing on Homestead's 1.5-mile oval. "Every week every situation matters so much, and you just don't know if that's going to be the end."
That desperation—and the on-the-track and off-the-track fireworks it produced—had people flocking to follow the action. After experiencing steady-to-declining attendance and TV ratings for most of the season, NASCAR finished on an upswing in the wake of Kenseth's combative moment. Credit it for not standing in the way of a good show. "We don't want to get ourselves in a situation where no one can express themselves," NASCAR chairman Brian France explained two days before the final. "We expect them to do that in a way that is civil, but we also know that there are going to be some moments where the emotions will get the best of anybody."
That didn't happen on Sunday. Even with the stakes so high—whoever finished first among the quartet of Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman would win the title—all four finalists rose to the occasion.
Even Newman, who had remained in contention despite not winning a race all year, stepped up. Steadily, he worked his way from a 21st-place start into a battle with his three rivals as all ran in the top six. While his Chevy would prove faster than it had been all season, it wasn't quick enough to catch Harvick—who led 54 laps and launched his Chevy through a restart with three laps to go to take his third checkered flag of the Chase, and the first Cup title of his 14-year career.
It was a popular and eminently deserved victory—for both the new champion and his sport.
Faces in the Crowd
The Case for
Rushing yards by Wisconsin junior running back Melvin Gordon last Saturday, the highest single-game total in FBS history. Gordon broke the record held by LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for 406 yards for TCU on Nov. 20, 1999. Gordon needed only 25 carries to set the mark and didn't play in the fourth quarter of the Badgers' 59--24 win over Nebraska.
134 / Combined points by the ROCKETS and the THUNDER in Houston's 69--65 win on Sunday. It's the fewest points the Rockets have scored in a win in their 48-year history and the fewest combined points in an NBA game since 2005.
139 / Points scored by the PELICANS last Friday against the TIMBERWOLVES, the most in team history and the most in the NBA this season. New Orleans beat Minnesota by 48 points, the largest margin of victory in franchise history.
Harness racing wins for Dave Palone—and for Heinz Wewering—through Sunday. Palone, 52, broke the record of the 64-year-old Wewering last Friday aboard Missy Tap Tina at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Pennsylvania, but Wewering tied him the next day in Germany.
APPROXIMATE DISTANCE, IN FEET, FROM WEMBLEY STADIUM TO THE HOTEL BEING USED BY THE SLOVENIAN NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM. THEY WANTED TO WALK, BUT UEFA ORDERED THEM TO TAKE A BUS BEFORE THEIR MATCH AGAINST ENGLAND TO ENSURE THEY WOULDN'T BE LATE. SLOVENIA LOST 3--1.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY NICOLE ZIGMONT
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (GORDON)
WHITE PACKERT/GETTY IMAGES (BASKETBALL)
MARK HALL/AP (PALONE)
JOE POTATO PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES (BUS)