HOMESTEAD, Fla. Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick shared the stage Thursday at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the only contenders remaining for this season’s Sprint Cup Series championship.
One of the three is not like the others.
Johnson is a five-time champion and has a hefty points lead toward No.6. Kenseth won the 2003 title. That leaves Harvick as the only driver without a previous Cup championship.
There’s something else as well.
Nobody has had a more trying path toward title contention this year than Harvick, who announced before the season this would be his last at Richard Childress Racing.
As Harvick is fond of reminding people, many media and fans wrote off his chances at a championship long ago for that reason alone. In a NASCARMedia.com preseason poll, he was picked to finish 11th. Johnson was the overwhelming favorite.
“Everybody has written us off from the beginning of the year to not be in the Chase, let alone competitive and winning races in the Chase,” Harvick said.
So, how did it happen?
Why were Harvick, crew chief Gil Martin and team owner Richard Childress able to keep the No.29 team focused?
Perhaps because whatever trials the team would face, none could surpass the dark days the organization survived during 2001 when seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap wreck at the Daytona 500 and Harvick, then a Nationwide Series driver, became his instant replacement.
The car’s number changed from 3 to 29, but the team that once belonged to a NASCAR legend landed on the shoulders of a newcomer.
“We’ve been through a lot of scenarios that were a lot tougher than my job ending after this week at RCR,” Harvick said Friday. “The way that it started at Atlanta, really Rockingham in 2001.
“We’ve been through a lot of hard situations before, had committed to each other to fulfill our commitment throughout the year.”
Harvick and Childress were not concerned with team members.
“The guys in the shop, they don’t care. I always tell people, it’s just as hard to run last as it is to run first,” Harvick said.
Added Childress: “We’re like family. You spend a lot of time with each other at the track, so you're going to have your spats and stuff, and just got to make it work.”
As this season progressed, Harvick’s performance remained steady.
His championship chances nearly took a serious detour last month when, after a run-in with Childress’ grandson Ty Dillon during a Truck series race at Martinsville, Va., Harvick made several disparaging remarks on television about Ty and his brother, Austin, which incensed his team owner.
Harvick apologized for the comments, but questions again arose whether the team could stay together until the end of the season.
The good of the company prevailed.
“In the end, you put all that aside and you get to do what you like to do in the race car, be around the guys in the garage that really don’t care about the politics, they don’t care about contracts, they don’t care about scenarios,” Harvick said.
“They put 12 hours seven days a week, sometimes more, into those cars, and they want to see them perform. They don’t care about the rest of it. That’s really what drove me, were the guys on my team.”
Does Harvick, at 34 points behind Johnson, still have a chance at the title? A small one.
Is it enough?
“We’ve had so many strange things happen throughout my career at the last minute, you at least have to play everything out,” Harvick said. “Just the type of team we are, we race up until the last lap.
“You just never know what’s going to happen.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.