Championship Earned, Respect Deserved
They're the ones that drive this great sport of auto racing. They're there at Daytona when the season starts in February, and they're there all the way through the checkered flag at Homestead. Each week, they fill the stands and camping lots, mob the souvenir haulers, and go through whatever means necessary to try and get close to their favorite drivers. The NASCAR fan base is unlike any other in sports.
That passion is fueled by the nature of the competition. Unlike if you attend a New England Patriots game, where you're either a fan of the Patriots or you're not, in NASCAR, there are 43 cars on the track. That means at any given time, there are fans of 43 different "teams" (if you will) at the same venue or on the same social media site.
This results in more imminent debates than in other sports. For every Kyle Busch supporter, there's a Brad Keselowski fan. For every member of Junior Nation, there's someone to remind them about the lack of a championship. For every fan pulling for Jeff Gordon to win a long-awaited fifth championship, there's an equally passionate fan hoping for Jimmie Johnson to keep rolling with a seventh.
That's our sport. That uniqueness in fans is what defines it from any other in the world.
But, that passion can get ugly when a fan's love for their own driver turns into a hatred for the others. Instead of cheering on their own driver, some openly hope that others get intentionally wrecked. Instead of being disappointed by a poor performance, some call other drivers and crew chiefs cheaters. (It never seems to matter who; if it's not that person's driver, the rest cheated.) Instead of tipping their cap to a good performance, they boo a champion and try to discredit the accomplishment.
This has happened to Jimmie Johnson for years. He's one of the most accomplished drivers in the history of the sport. In a couple of decades, when he retires and gets inducted as a first ballot Hall of Famer, far more fans will come to appreciate that they were able to watch him race in his prime. But for now, they detract from his success.
Kevin Harvick experienced the same level of disrespect on Sunday.
It seemed as though for every person congratulating Harvick, there were two or three trying to undermine his accomplishment. That's disrespectful to him and unfair to the competitive nature of NASCAR.
One of the main arguments thrown at Harvick is that a revamped Chase Grid system was the only reason he won the championship. That's seems petty (and not the Richard type). Each driver knew the system before the season started and each driver had an equal opportunity to execute.
Harvick entered the final race of the Eliminator Round at Phoenix needing a win advance. He'd led 224 laps en route to a win at that track in March, and returned with the dominant car to lead 264 laps and move on to the Championship Race. At Homestead, he rolled out one of the fastest cars (something he did time and again this season) and led 54 laps on his way to the race win that clinched the championship.
Nothing short of winning the last two races would have earned Harvick and his No. 4 team the championship, and he did just that. That's the mark of a champion in any sport. He should be lauded for such an impressive, championship performance, and should be up for an ESPY in that category next summer.
Still, there are naysayers to the system that try to discredit his season as a whole, and that's statistically inaccurate.
For every five laps run by the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season, Kevin Harvick led one of them. His 2,137 laps led (20.3 percent of all laps led) dwarfed Brad Keselowski's 1,540. Jimmie Johnson had 1,310 and Jeff Gordon had 1,083. That percentage of laps led is the highest since Johnson led 21.3 percent in 2009.
He also ran the most number of fastest laps at 1,233 (Jeff Gordon was second at 1,045) and led the field in driver rating with a 110.5 (Gordon, again, was second at a 110.2). And, when it was closing time, "The Closer," as they like to call him, won five races (second only to Keselowski's six) and finished second in six events.
If you're a fan of Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski or even Dale Earnhardt Jr., it's okay to be disappointed by the outcome of this season. All four of those drivers performed with impressive consistency, and all four won at least four races of their own. Each fan base sniffed a championship at several different times throughout the season. It's okay to feel like one got away this year.
But, when the final checkered flag drops at Homestead each season, there can only be one Sprint Cup champion. This year, it was none of those drivers, it was Kevin Harvick. Regardless of a fan's allegiance, Harvick deserves the respect that he rightfully earned as the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
Congratulations on a great season, Champ!