Just before the start of the biggest race of his life, NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick spoke with his team owner, Tony Stewart: Don’t give up, Smoke told him, until you see the checkered flag.
Harvick thought about that advice throughout Sunday's four-man shootout for the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway; as he navigated lap after tension-filled lap, as his knuckles turned white, as the sun dropped and disappeared into the South Florida swamp, as the end of the race neared and his hope for glory faded.
All year long he had dominated races only to lose them. It looked like it was happening again. His car slowed a tick and late-race cautions and pit strategy dropped him to 12th place with 15 laps to go. Two of the other four drivers in the championship hunt were in front of him, including race leader Denny Hamlin. Under normal circumstances, a driver could not make up that many positions in so few laps.
These were not normal circumstances. And Harvick is not a normal driver.
Not when a win, never mind a championship, is on the line. He tore through the field until he emerged from the chaotic sheet metal morass with clean track ahead of him. On the final restart, he lined up on the front row alongside Ryan Newman – also a finalist for the Sprint Cup championship. In all of NASCAR's storied history, never had a championship come down to three laps, two drivers, one title. Harvick's strategy was as old school as they come, as he said later on ESPN: "I was just going to hold the pedal down and hope for the best."
He held it down.
He got the best.
And after three weeks of thrilling and controversial racing, so did NASCAR.
Harvick grew up in Bakersfield, California, where he raced on short tracks with his father. Sometimes his dad would mess with the car – change the shocks or springs or tires. The point was to teach his son how to diagnose differences in a car's handling characteristics. It would be up to Harvick to identify the problem so a solution could be found to make the car faster.
He faced a similar test last season when he drove for a team owned by Richard Childress Racing. After 13 years there, Harvick knew he didn’t have the speed he needed to win a championship. And he didn't believe the team could find that speed, no matter how expertly he diagnosed the problem.
So he gambled. He left RCR and moved to Stewart-Haas Racing. While drivers change teams all the time, it's rare for one to find success immediately. But Harvick was fast the second he grabbed the wheel of his No. 4 Chevy.
He led laps in a remarkable eight of the first 10 races (and 27 of 36 overall, including 12 of the final 13). But a funny thing happened when he was going fast: He kept finding ways to lose races. He led 119 at Kansas in May and finished second. Two weeks later, he led 100 at Charlotte and finished second again. Time and again he dominated but had little to show for it – he led at least 60 laps without winning a total of eight times.
Andrew Maness, a leading expert in NASCAR stats, calculated the correlation between laps led and wins. By his formula, Harvick's 2,137 laps led on the season should have meant 7.67 wins, but he had "only" five. That was unusual for anybody but especially for Harvick. He’s called "The Closer" because in previous seasons he often figured out ways to win races that he didn't deserve to. Now the opposite kept happening.
When the 10-week playoff started, Harvick wore that nickname like a skin-tight firesuit. He won at Charlotte to advance to the third round of the playoffs, and again at Phoenix a week ago to set up his appearance in Sunday's finale. When he pulled away from Newman over the final three laps to win the race and his first championship, he capped one of the most remarkable stretches of racing and controversy in NASCAR's 65-year history.
A word about the state of NASCAR, because this championship is as much about NASCAR as it is about Harvick: The sport is endlessly obsessed with its place in the nation's sports consciousness. Chairman Brian France threw out NASCAR's old points system and instituted a new one before this season in a desperate search for buzz and ratings. He wanted to create "Game 7" moments to bring in new fans, and he bet the future of the sport that his new plan would do that. Critics (including me) savaged the new points system because it is needlessly complicated and aimed to impress people who don't like the sport in the first place. To say nothing of the fact that racing doesn't even have games, let alone seven of them.
NASCAR needed this Chase to be exciting to justify the change. The 10-race Chase opened with an I can’t believe he just did that pass by Brad Keselowski for a win at Chicago and ended with the four championship drivers running nose to tail, third through sixth, late in Sunday's race. In between there was a fight at Charlotte and a brawl at Texas and, in the penultimate race of the season, Ryan Newman intentionally wrecked rookie Kyle Larson on the last lap just to qualify for Sunday's finale.
Ratings grew by double digits late in the postseason and the sport crackled with energy, and if those are the only standards by which the new Chase is to be measured then it was a success. Harvick called it the best thing to happen to the sport in a decade.
And here he is this morning, reaping the benefits of France's all-in gamble. He sits alone atop the American motorsports world, about to be introduced to the masses, his dimples gracing the front of every sports page in the country. He has a wife who sobbed when he won and an adorable son and a cocky streak a mile wide. He will win the morning news gabfests and the late-night comedy shows because he's a brash, smirking, wink-and-a-smile troublemaker.
The Closer is just getting started.