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Asked how he felt about becoming the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, Kevin Harvick understandably took a moment to gather his thoughts.
"That's a good question," he started. "You know, I think as you go back in time and you just really think about everything that's led up to this point, this is what we race for. You show up to race for the Sprint Cup championship trophy.
"You really have been able to experience something that you don't get to experience very often," he added. "It's been an unbelievable first year, and pretty awesome."
Harvick moved to SHR just one year ago after 12 seasons with Richard Childress Racing, and while he left his old team with good feelings he revealed just why the change had been so necessary and important to him, and a big step to landing this year's championship.
"I just wasn't excited about going to work there. I needed to be excited about going to work," he said. "In the end, if you're not happy, nothing is going to work like it should ... It's been a long, long time since I can sit up here and honestly tell you that I love the experience of everything that's been around me, and it just makes it fun.
But 'happy' is undoubtedly the key word for Harvick this year. It's his nickname around the paddock, although it's tended to be used somewhat ironically as the best you normally get out of the 38-year-old Californian is a wry grin every now and then. But not at Homestead on Sunday night, when the smile was on full intensity as he spoke about his feelings and what it meant to win the championship for SHR with the support of team owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas, and crew chief Rodney Childers.
"It really changed my life in a new direction," said of the decisions he had made to change teams last year. "And really my son started that. [Wife] Delana and I looking at things and saying, what's going to make us happy? Because in the end if you're not happy, nothing is going to work like it should.
"I don't think I've ever been happier in my whole life than I have been this year," he said. "From a personal standpoint, from a professional standpoint, and you see all the things that you have around you, and you're lucky. I'm pretty lucky to be able to do what I used to pay to do for a hobby. You show up and you're having fun doing it, and it's like a hobby, honestly. I have no idea how much money I make or what I do. I love showing up to work. I love coming to the racetrack and love what I do.
"To be able to come here in our first year with Gene and Tony and Rodney and all these guys on the team," he said. "For the fact that I feel like I've been a part of something that you get to know everybody's name, you get to race with your friends, with Tony. I've gotten to know Gene, who's made just a huge financial commitment to this team. You get to know all these people, and in the end, it's really about the people.
"I think for me personally, there's nothing better than to see your friends smile, and that's really what it's all about," he continued. "We made some mistakes along the way. I don't think any of us ever dreamed of making all those mistakes in front of the world, leading races and the things that we were doing. But in the end I feel like it all built up to this moment to be able to experience and handle the things that we did today."
Unsurprisingly, Harvick was very happy indeed about the new format used for the first time this year for the Chase play-offs deciding the championship winner.
"I just feel like this format was made for us this year because of the fact that we had to build a new team," he said. "It turned out you had to go for broke just to be competitive, and I think that's really what this format has turned every week into over the last ten weeks is 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 tyres on the pit box. In the end you had to win the race to win the championship, and it all worked out."
Although he'd been at or near the front for most of the race - he led for 54 of the 267 laps at the 1.5-mile oval on Sunday - arguably the crucial moment came when he decided to pit for four tyres 19 laps from the end. That dropped him down to 14th place, while Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin had both stayed out and Ryan Newman had taken two tyres only and restarted in the top four. It could have cost Harvick the title, but Childers had been adamant about the decision to come in.
"When it came down to that, I didn't even flinch," Childers said. "I thought that was the right thing to do. The real problem was we had had perfect pit stops all night and then the last one we had tonight we had a problem ... Once we got lined up in 14th, I thought that I had made the wrong decision and had let my team down and had given the whole year away.
"Actually, it ended up being a good thing. We got to line up on the outside where we needed to be. We had had a fast car all night and had to restart third every single restart it seemed like, and that was the worst place to be."
Despite the #4 being the strongest of the Chase contenders all day - Gordon arguably had the edge out of anyone, the #24 having led for a race-high 161 laps during the race - Childers hadn't actually felt that Harvick's car was performing all that well for much of the race.
"I didn't feel like our car was that much better than anybody else's," he said. "In all honesty, I thought that all four of the Chase contenders were really, really close all weekend. When you got done with happy hour, you looked at everybody's sticker run, and you're like, oh, man, I don't know who's got an advantage here by any means.
"We started the race, we were pretty far off, just like we were at Phoenix to be honest with you. I mean, we turned wrenches and turned wrenches tonight and then went the wrong way at one point and started getting it back there towards the end. We kept going one direction and it kept helping and then the next thing you know it was the wrong direction.
"You know, I've said this all weekend - you had four really good drivers and you had four really good race teams," he pointed out. "Any of those guys were deserving and had done a good job and got themselves in a position to win a championship. All in all, we just happened to hit it right there at the end."
Harvick and Childers had been a new pairing in a new team at the start of the year, but by the time they emerged from the championship crucible nine months and 36 races later, that had certainly changed.
"It's been a lot of fun," said Harvick. "He's become one of my really good friends, and there's not a day that goes by that there's not a text or a phone call or email or something that doesn't go by that we talk.
"I feel like we're pretty straight up and honest with each other, and that makes it a lot of fun, and I think that that bleeds over into the team and the guys," he continued. " And they see the relationship that we have, and nobody ever really ever has pointed a finger and been mad at each other. It's just we may get frustrated, and you just walk away, and next thing you know you're working on a solution.
"I think the best thing that I've experienced this year about Rodney and myself is we're kind of a little bit opposite," he added. "I'm pretty high strung, he's pretty low key, so it's been a really good balance of people. He's put people around him that believe in what he does, and in turn, it's become everybody believes in what we do.
"I think that's the biggest thing that I've learned throughout the years in owning the race teams" he suggested. "You can buy all the fancy stuff and you can do all the great things, but if you don't have the right people, you're dead in the water."
Harvick went on to talk about how the support of team boss Tony Stewart had been vital to his success this year. "I think as this week came, Tony was a big part of just kind of giving me the heads up and saying, all right, Bud, this is not going to be like last week. You might be able to go and be prepared to run for a race win, but now you're going to race for a championship, and it's all on the line in one spot. And he was a big help [to] just kind of get through the week and keeping it low key, and he was right. It's been a mentally draining week leading up to today.
"I know he's been through a lot this year, but very rarely have we talked about those situations," added Harvick, alluding to Stewart's involvement in a fatal regional racing accident in August. "It's just, he's my friend, and I want to see him happy and work through the situations that he has. We're fortunate to be able to work together and have those situations to where we race cars and do the things that we love to do. But in the end, I just want to see him happy."
It's not just Stewart who's been helping out, either. Thanks to the close working relationship that SHR has with Hendrick Motorsports which builds and supplies their Chevrolet engines, Harvick has also been given a big boost this week by support from six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
"This week ate me up," Harvick admitted. "If it wasn't for Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, I would have been in bad trouble this week. Those guys really helped me get through the week.
"Jimmie and I have known each other for a long time," he explained. "We slept on those same couches at [Ron] Hornaday's house adjacent to each other in the game room. He'd go race his ASA cars, and I'd go race the trucks for the Spears bunch, so we spent a lot of time together as friends and have grown to be better friends as we've gone past the last few years for sure.
"But it's been fun. I mean, he's been very supportive, and we've been very supportive of him, as well, and they went through some struggles, and trying to support them as much as we could to help them get back on track with the #48 and the things that they've done this year."
Ultimately Johnson was eliminated from Chase contention after Talladega, and with Jeff Gordon - the last of the Hendrick Motorsport contingent still in the running - dropping out after last week's race at Phoenix, it meant that Johnson had been able to actively support Harvick this week without any conflicting team loyalties getting in the way.
"Jimmie was a huge help," revealed Harvick. "Jimmie was in my trailer as much as 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 ... He'd show up in the trailer after every practice and called and texted to Rodney and myself. You pull the data up, and I was making some pretty huge mistakes, so that eased my mind going into the day."
All of which helped combine to put Harvick into victory lane this weekend at Homestead - and with it, into the history books as a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion alongside Johnson, Stewart and his newest SHR team mate Kurt Busch.
"Just to have those resources to draw from, whether it be Tony's three championships or Jimmie has won six, and Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart‑Haas and Kurt, we just have so many things to draw from," he agreed. "I told [Tony] last night, I said, the strength of what we've done all year has been the decisions that we've made from whether we were running good or bad.
"You talk about what you need to do and past history of what happens on Sunday, and you go off of what you know. And these guys have done a great job in making race day decisions."
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