(SportsNetwork.com) - From the first lap at Chicagoland to the last lap at Homestead, the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship was filled with lots of drama and excitement, thanks to NASCAR's new playoff format.
NASCAR instituted a playoff format for its premier series in 2004, but prior to the start of this season, the sanctioning body made radical changes to its 10-race postseason by expanding the Chase field to 16 drivers/teams and adding a series of elimination rounds (Challenger, Contender, Eliminator and Championship). The Chase began on Sept. 14 at Chicagoland and concluded this past Sunday at Homestead.
Kevin Harvick, in his first season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, claimed his first Sprint Cup championship. Harvick qualified for the Chase with two wins during the regular season (Phoenix in March and Darlington in April). In fact, he became the first repeat winner of the season.
Harvick accumulated enough points during the Challenger Round to advance into the Contender Round and then won the Oct. 11 night race at Charlotte to move on to the Eliminator Round. After finishing 33rd at Martinsville (Oct. 26) and then second at Texas (Nov. 2), Harvick was eighth in the Chase point standings.
He entered the Nov. 9 elimination race at Phoenix in a must-win situation in order to make the Chase final four at Homestead.
After winning Phoenix with a dominating performance, leading 264 of 312 laps, Harvick said in victory lane, "Wow, I guess that is what it feels like to hit a walk off in extra innings there."
It earned him a spot in the final four, joining Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman. Hamlin, Logano and Newman advanced to the Championship Round based on points.
All four title contenders ran among the top-10 during most of the race at Homestead, and at one point, the four were running among the top-five, but pit strategy late in the event would determine the outcome.
Harvick's crew chief, Rodney Childers, made a gutsy call for a four-tire change during his final pit stop under caution with less than 20 laps to go, dropping him to 12th in the running order. But Harvick benefited from two cautions in the closing laps to move to the front.
Newman, who made a two-tire change in the late going, finished a half-second behind Harvick in the runner-up spot, while Hamlin, electing not to pit, placed seventh. Logano finished 16th due to his mishap on pit road (his car came off of the jack stand during the tire change).
Harvick won the Daytona 500 in 2007 and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in 2003, but Phoenix and Homestead were perhaps the biggest victories of his racing career. His first Sprint Cup title came in his 14th season. He had spent the previous 13 years with Richard Childress Racing.
"If you want to win the championship, you're going to have to figure out how to win races, and in the end, that's what it came down to was winning the race, and obviously a gutsy call and four tires on the pit box," Harvick said. "In the end, you had to win the race to win the championship, and it all worked out."
NASCAR also won big at Phoenix and Homestead. Both tracks were sold out and television ratings increased. Give credit to not only the tight battle for the championship but the post-race brawl between Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski as well as their teams at Texas. Gordon ended up missing the final four by only one point.
There were plenty of other dramatic moments involving Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, during the Chase. He was involved in a post-race altercation with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Hamlin, and his antics on pit road there, intentionally hitting Kenseth and Tony Stewart from behind, resulted in Keselowski being fined $50,000 and placed on probation for four races.
Keselowski went on to win the next Chase race, Oct. 19 at Talladega, to advance into the Eliminator Round.
Even though the new Chase format created a lot more stress for drivers and teams than in years past, NASCAR has to be pleased with this format, as it increased the level of competition and generated more fan interest.
"It was amazing with the amount of excitement and drama of watching that, even for long-time fans like myself," NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said about the championship race at Homestead during an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday. "That gets you on the edge of your seat - who's going to do this thing. And that's really the beauty of the format. As we go down the road, that's going to be the case. If you go back through the (2014) Chase, there were plenty of big moments where teams stepped up to move on - Keselowski when he had to do it at Talladega, as an example.
"I think the teams like that environment. I know it's stressful for them, but I think that, at the end of the day, they get excited about elevating themselves."
Under the old Chase format, Logano would have won the championship since he scored more points than any other title-eligible driver during the 10 races. He scored two wins (New Hampshire and Kansas) and seven top-10 finishes, but his 16th-place run at Homestead was his worst during the playoffs.
"As the car that scored more points than anyone in the Chase, it's hard to say you're in love with it, but I do think it was a good thing for the sport," Logano said. "It was a great experience. I had fun with it, learned a lot for next time in my career that I get to compete for a championship again and how I can maybe do a few things differently and then learn from my mistakes."
Harvick, though, had the most wins during the Chase with three. In 2011, his teammate and team co-owner, Stewart, won five of the 10 races during the postseason to claim the title on a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.
When NASCAR revised the Chase format, it put more emphasis on winning than scoring points. Drivers such as A.J. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Hamlin finished the regular season outside the top-15 in points but made the playoffs by simply winning a race.
Greg Biffle, Kenseth and Newman, in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, were those winless drivers that qualified for the Chase. Newman secured the 16th and final seed and considered an underdog throughout the playoffs. He nearly became the first champion in NASCAR's top series to not have a victory during the season.
"I was one of the guys who had a shot at it, and I was happy to be in that position," Newman said. "You live for the moment, and you drive as hard as you can. We didn't have quite enough. That's disappointing, but it was an awesome team effort...It was fun from my standpoint to come from where we came from this year. We started the season in Daytona getting spun out in the last five laps to being the runner-up for the championship. It was a good rebound for us."
Furthermore, Hamlin could have become the first driver in the series to miss a race during the season and still win the championship since 1971 when Richard Petty missed two races but captured the title. Hamlin did not compete in Fontana, California in March due to an injury caused by a piece of metal lodged into the back of his eye.
"I think we overachieved greatly by being here," Hamlin said. "We haven't had the speed to compete for race wins all year, but we did (at Homestead), on the race that really mattered. Just came up short."
During his interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, France referred to Harvick's race win and series championship at Homestead as "a grand slam in the ninth inning."
Well, NASCAR also hit a grand slam with its Chase format.