NASCAR Darlington 2014 recap: Implosion averted, Kevin Harvick claims Southern 500 victory

Jeff Zelevansky

A month’s worth of frustration vanished for Kevin Harvick Saturday night at Darlington.

Under the old format, frustration would have been almost unavoidable. As would the finger pointing. All likely followed by self-doubt and wondering whether it really was a good idea to leave Richard Childress Racing after 13 highly successful seasons to join Stewart-Haas Racing.

Yet none of these things manifested for Kevin Harvick even as the poor finishes mounted.

"To win the Southern 500 and you look at the names and pictures on that trophy they have out there is something that's pretty phenomenal to be a part of."-Kevin Harvick

Not after the broken wheel hub at Las Vegas and the fiery crash due to a cut oil line at Bristol; nor the tires issues at Fontana, a broken chain at Martinsville or the blown engine at Texas. Entering Darlington, Harvick had finished 36th or worse in four of five races, each time with a car capable of winning.

NASCAR, however, is no longer operating under a format where week-to-week consistency is overriding to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The new NASCAR is a world where winning matters most. And in large part because he had already won a race this year, virtually securing his place in the Chase, Harvick was able to keep smiling through the worst slump of his career, a streak broken Saturday night as Harvick won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

If there is a team that has benefitted the most because of NASCAR's greater emphasis on winning, it would be the one led by Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers.

Unless the bottom completely fell out, the No. 4 team would be one of 16 in the Chase competing for the championship thanks to its March victory at Phoenix, which came in just Harvick's second race with his new team.

"I think it says a lot about the character of the people and the things that happen within Stewart-Haas Racing," Harvick said. "To have everybody keep their head down and stay focused on what they need to be focused on is kind of like a big test to see if it would implode from inside out, and everybody just kept doing what they're supposed to do, and everything went really well."

Still, the continued mishaps and missed opportunities created a sense that maybe the bottom was indeed falling out.

So when another situation arose Saturday night that had the potential to derail what looked like certain victory, Childers acted decisively. During a pit stop that gave Harvick less than a full tank of fuel, Childers benched his gas man mid-race. It was not an act of desperation, but the move of a crew chief who understood what was at stake.

"It really just came down to the can didn't plug in right the first time, and once the can doesn't plug in right the first time, it pretty much becomes a disaster, and panic mode sets in," Childers said. "It's one of those deals where we're a young team, but we made a mistake, and we switched gas men as soon as it happened. I was like, ‘We're not giving this away.'"

Crisis averted, Harvick used two green-white-checker restarts to his advantage to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the penultimate lap. It was Harvick's first Darlington victory and with it he joins an elite group that includes only Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt as members who have won NASCAR's four biggest events (Daytona 500, Southern 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400).

"To win the Southern 500 and you look at the names and pictures on that trophy they have out there is something that's pretty phenomenal to be a part of," Harvick said. "I'm just proud of all my guys, Rodney for keeping them all together and being a part of it, and seeing it not implode from within is pretty awesome."

The word "implode" was one Harvick used in some variation three times in his post-race media session. Although there were no signs of a team coming apart, its patchiness of late cast doubt whether he was truly the championship contender, a label which seemed obvious just a month before.

Harvick and Childers never wavered. Each was a steady presence, understanding that while they didn't have consistent results, what they did have were cars consistently among the fastest in the garage.

"Everybody has patted each other on the back and said, ‘Look at the speed of our race cars and look at the things that we've been able to accomplish,'" Harvick said. "Everybody just kept supporting each other."

And in a winner-take-all championship format, it's an approach that could well lead to Harvick's first series title -- consistency be damned.

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