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Kevin Harvick captured his maiden NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in the best way possible, with an outright race win at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the winner-take-all season finale on Sunday evening.

In a race that saw all four of the remaining championship contenders running close together in the top ten for almost the entire 400-mile event, Harvick had to battle back late in the day from 12th place after gambling on four tyres in his final visit to pit lane. That initially appeared to be a serious mistake, but the decision allowed him to race back past Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin and get to the front in the remaining laps before the chequered flag dropped.

Hamlin had taken an alternate gamble of staying out, but his worn tyres put him at a critical disadvantage at the final restart. Ryan Newman split the difference and took two tyres, but simply wasn't fast enough to hold off Harvick at the finish and ended up crossing the line exactly half a second behind the new champion. The fourth contender, Joey Logano, had already been undone by a lugnut issue and then by the #22 slipping off the jack in earlier pit tops, leaving him well out of the running by the finish.

"I just really don't know what to even to say about how much I appreciate this," said Harvick as the realisation that he'd just clinched his first Cup championship - along with his first-ever series win at Homestead - started to sink in. "It came down to a pit call and I thought man, we are in big trouble here.

"It didn't pan out real well there to be honest with you," he admitted. "But that was the call that won us the race. We were able to go so hard on the restarts. [Crew chief] Rodney Childers isn't scared to make a call - he does what is right, and right or wrong we had to believe in what we did and kept going with it.

"I have to thank everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing team. What a year!" he added, having only moved to the squad at the start of 2014 after a dozen seasons at Richard Childress Racing. "I'm just really excited. It's really special for everybody. Really happy. Been trying for 13 years."

Unsurprisingly perhaps in the circumstances, Harvick ended the year as a huge fan of the new format that was used for the Chase play-offs to decide this year's champion over the course of the last ten races of the season.

"I think this Chase is about the best thing that has happened to this sport over the last decade," he said. "This is probably going to shorten the drivers' careers because it's been so stressful but I want to thank every single fan for sticking with this sport, and to the industry for working to get it right. You guys are what makes us go around, and we love racing hard for it."

Harvick made it clear early on in the Ford EcoBoost 400 that his preferred strategy was to win the title by winning the race itself. He passed pole winner Jeff Gordon to get the front for the first time on lap 15 after an early round of pit stops carried out during the first caution of the day, triggered by a wire hanging down on the frontstraight near the start/finish line. Two of his championship rivals were able to keep in touch, with Hamlin and Logano soon running immediately behind Gordon in third and fourth; even Newman had succeeded in moving up to 14th by lap 25, at which point Gordon successfully reclaimed the race lead and started to pull away from the trio of Chase drivers. Clearly, the Hendrick Motorsports driver felt that he had a point to prove after missing the cut for the title battle by one point last week at Phoenix.

By the time the second caution came out on lap 57 for smoke from Brett Moffitt's #66, Logano had established himself as the main threat to Gordon's lead and Harvick had fallen back to fourth behind Hamlin, still too close to call between them while Newman had still been unable to crack the top ten. Gordon won the race off pit road ahead of the three Chase contenders, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Newman in 11th, with everyone having played safe and opted for four tyres.

Hamlin took the lead for the first time at the restart on lap 64, but two laps later Gordon was again able to reassert his control of the proceedings as the Chase trio focussed on their internal battle for supremacy. A few laps later and Newman arrived in the top five to join the party, and it was clear that all four of the remaining championship contenders had brought their A-game to Homestead. and none of them could be counted out.

A caution on lap 86 (for Moffitt again, this time getting in the wall in turn 2) saw a new round of four-tyre pit stops with Gordon beating Hamlin, Harvick and Logano back out while Newman dropped a few spots to put him in eighth for the restart. Many drivers were starting to complain about their car's handling - and Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards had both scraped the wall - so a caution for Alex Bowman shredding a tyre on lap 116 gave the field a welcome opportunity to make adjustments on pit road. It was also good news for Earnhardt, who had gone a lap down making an extra pit stop for a cut tyre but who now got benefit of the free pass to get that lap back; but it was far less positive for Kyle Busch, who failed to get away from his pit stall and had to be pushed to the garage with a broken axle and rear gear on the #18.

Gordon once again won the race off pit road ahead of Harvick, Hamlin and Logano, with Johnson in fifth ahead of Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard for the restart on lap 121. Harvick was quick to take the lead from Gordon for the second time, but the championship battle remained tight with all four contenders in the top five as the 267-lap race passed the halfway point. With the sun setting, the floodlights on and the temperatures starting to dip,, the race ran uninterrupted until lap 155 at which point AJ Allmendinger went into the backstretch wall. Gordon won the race off pit road followed by Hamlin, Harvick and Logano, and Kenseth just edging out Newman for fifth place.

The restart on lap 161 saw Greg Biffle in the wall, and when the field next took the green flag five laps later it was Hamlin's chance to go to the front while Harvick soon took over second spot after Logano lightly kissed the wall and started to fall back. A caution on lap 194 for Marcos Ambrose hitting the wall on the backstretch in his final outing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series gave the #22 crew time to carry out repairs on pit lane, but Logano still slipped back to tenth place for the restart on lap 199.

Gordon won the race off pit road to lead Hamlin, Harvick and Earnhardt at the restart. Even though it was too far to even consider stretching fuel all the way to the finish, everyone was back in again under the next caution on lap 207 triggered by debris in turn 3, most likely from Trevor Bayne's car after the #21 hit the wall. The top three were unchanged with Keselowski up to fourth, but Newman lost four spots on pit road which dropped him to ninth place just behind Logano.

Hamlin moved to the front at the restart on lap 213, but with less than 50 laps remaining a new debris caution on lap 221 put everyone in range of the finish by taking one more stop. That saw Gordon promoted back to the front ahead of Hamlin and Newman regain three of the spots he'd lost in the previous round of stops: the Chase contender now in danger of losing touch with the battle was Logano, a lugnut issue dropping the #22 to 12th for the restart on lap 226.

AJ Allmendinger wrecked for the second time on lap 236 to bring out the tenth caution of the day after blowing a tyre. While fuel was no longer a concern, getting stuck on worn tyres was now at the forefront of everyone's minds and so they were all back in again for four-tyre stops. Gordon retained the lead, but at the restart on lap 243 Hamlin spun his tyres which allowed Harvick to get around him for the provisional championship-winning spot, while Keselowski got around both to take up second place in the race behind Gordon.

Five laps later and there was another debris caution to ratchet up the tension even higher. Once again the leaders headed to pit road - all that is save for Jeff Gordon and also Denny Hamlin, who received a last minute call from crew chief Darian Grubb to stay out. Whatever the risk, he fared better than Logano whose car fell off the jack sending him tumbling back to 21st place and all-but out of title contention with 16 laps to go at the green flag, which saw Gordon and Hamlin at the front ahead of Ryan Newman who had gone for right-side tyres only. Harvick had instead opted for a full four but it had cost him track position, leaving him in 12th place.

Hamlin emerged from a five-wide restart with the lead but Harvick was already putting his new tyres to effective use and charging back through the field, until yet another caution came out on lap 255 this time for an accident involving JJ Yeley and Blake Koch. Surprisingly Gordon opted to pit from second place under the caution (along with Logano, who had little left to lose at this point), leaving Hamlin and Newman at the front for the restart and Harvick now in sixth for a nine-lap sprint remaining to decide the 2014 title.

Hamlin got a solid restart this time but Harvick was on a charge passing Newman for second place within the course of a single lap and then getting a run on Hamlin to take the lead down the inside with six laps to go, when yet another caution materialised this time for more debris dropping off Koch's badly damaged #32. Heading into one final restart with three laps to go, the top three were all Chase contenders and it was still too close to call.

When the green flag came out, it soon became clear that the tyres on Hamlin's car were spent; he was done, and Grubb was on the radio to apologise to the driver for the strategy miscall. Meanwhile Newman was pressing Harvick hard for the lead, but when the white flag came out it was the #4 out in front and pulling away, and half a minute later the chequered flag confirmed it: Harvick had won the race, and with it the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship.

He's only the third person to become Cup champion after having previously won the Nationwide Series title, after Brad Keselowski and Bobby Labonte. This was was Harvick's fifth race win of the season and his third in the Chase - he finished the season with a flourish, with back-to-back victories at Phoenix last week and now at Homestead. Along the way he's led 2137 laps, claimed eight poles and taken a grand total of 20 top ten finishes.

There seems little doubt that no matter what criticisms there had been made of this year's new-format Chase play-offs, Harvick is a more than deserving addition to the hall of Sprint Cup champions, and that the season finale itself had more than lived up to advance billing in terms of delivering nail-biting tension all the way to the finish.

Ryan Newman is the championship runner-up after his best finish of the season, with Denny Hamlin in third place ahead of Joey Logano in the final points standings. The best of the rest proved to be Logano's Penske's team mate Brad Keselowski, who finished in fifth place 13 points ahead of Jeff Gordon after crossing the line at Homestead in third place ahead of Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth.

Among the drivers who didn't make it into the play-offs, Kyle Larson finished in 17th place in the championship ahead of his Chip Ganassi Racing team mate Jamie McMurray; Larson also sealed the 2014 Sunoco Rookie of the Year title. Chevrolet won the manufacturers championship, and Tony Stewart clinched the owners championship courtesy of Kevin Harvick's season behind the wheel of the Stewart-Haas Racing #4 - although that was perhaps a rather a minor consolation prize for Stewart, who after a torrid year ended up without a race win all year for the first time since 1999.

"It's just an unbelievable feeling to do this with a good friend in Kevin Harvick, [and] Gene Haas who believed in us to come and be a partner with him," said the team co-owner. "Everybody that is a part of this who came on with Stewart-Haas six years ago when we started this, believed in what we were building and what are trying to do ... This is the result of hard work!"

"I'm totally in awe," responded Gene Haas, Stewart's co-owner in team. "Tony Stewart had the faith in me to do this, and I had the faith in him and it has all paid off. I tell you, this second championship is unbelievable. I'm just in awe. Kevin has pulled a rabbit out of his hat so many times, and you had failure right in hand, and you just stayed in it and kept going because it isn't over until it's over."

Stewart will be back in action again next year along with his newly crowned champion Kevin Harvick and the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup field, when it's time to get back to work next February for the first race of the 2015 season, the Daytona 500.

Full race results from Homestead-Miami SpeedwayFinal Sprint Cup Championship standings

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