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On NASCAR: Not The Winner, But Still Champion

by Cathy Elliott
Sunday, November 21, 2010

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The author, Cathy Elliott
During a press conference in Miami held three days prior to the season-ending Ford 400, a comment made before any of the three remaining NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship contenders uttered a single word made me laugh out loud.

"The three drivers still in contention for this year's series title are separated by just 46 points," said Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of corporate communications. "So close you could cover them with a blanket."

Wow; flashback. When my brother and I were kids -- and probably when you and your brother were kids, too -- we would separate ourselves from the outside world by constructing forts made of blankets draped on chairs. Inside that enclave we, along with maybe a random cousin or two, were the only people that mattered. No one else existed.

Usually a tussle of some sort would ensue, and various arms and legs would poke out of the sides of the blanket as things progressed, but the majority of the action was contained inside that private little world. It was stuffy, but it was ours.

I kept waiting for Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin to crack wise about not wanting to share blanket space with either, or both, of the other two, but it never happened. In some strange way, I think they all 'got it.'

These three drivers are grown men, not imaginative children pretending to be Butch and Sundance. They still get to play their favorite game, but now they're getting paid for it, and the stakes are high. Since February, they have been constructing their fort, doing whatever needed to be done in order to shore it up, to make those walls impossible for invaders to breach. The war has been long, and on Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway  it all came down to a single battle that only one could win.

Kevin Harvick would have made a great NASCAR champion.

At 34, Harvick is old enough to be seasoned but still young enough to be cool. It is hard to believe nearly a decade has passed since his abrupt entry into the Cup Series, facilitated by the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt Sr.. The ghost of the man many people consider the greatest NASCAR driver of all time is Harvick's near-constant companion, drifting silently but never unnoticed at every media center press conference, in every photo op with team owner Richard Childress.

But having The Intimidator riding shotgun hasn't intimidated Kevin Harvick. If anything, it has motivated him. "It all has worked backwards for me with coming in, with taking over Dale's car. You started with the biggest press conference you'll ever be a part of in your whole life. You start with the weight of the world on your shoulders," he said. "As it's gone through the years, it's gotten easier. It's almost like you've gotten prepared for these situations before you even got started."

Harvick is a man of the people, someone you feel like you could sit down and have a beer with and actually relate to. (Apparently Budweiser agrees; they will sponsor Harvick's Chevy beginning next season). He has worked hard and enjoyed great success -- he has two NASCAR Camping World Series owner championships, two NASCAR Nationwide Series driver championships, and 14 Cup Series wins to his credit, including the 2007 Daytona 500.

A championship for Harvick would have also meant a championship for Richard Childress and a resulting spike in tissue sales, as there would not have been a dry eye in the house, or at the track. Plus, he started the race third in the driver standings, which made him the underdog. But he had no intention of rolling over and playing dead. "Yeah, you know, obviously you want to outrun the other team, and you want to do it as fair as you can. I think if it comes down to the end, I'll sleep fine. I'll do whatever I have to do," he said.

We already know Jimmie Johnson will make a great NASCAR champion, because we've watched him have at it -- the official NASCAR catchphrase of 2010 -- over and over. And over. And over.

Handsome, articulate and congenial, Johnson is poster-boy championship material. If he wasn't named "Least Likely to Go Out and Embarrass Us" in the Senior Superlative section of his high school yearbook, they missed the boat. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find a touch of Archie Bunker lurking underneath all that urbanity. He's comfortable in that chair, has no intention of moving, and will fight you if you try to budge him.

"We've done our job over the last four years. I guess I do understand if the shoe was on the other foot, and I was watching someone take the trophy away four times in a row, I'd get tired of it, too ... I'm relishing the spotlight that we've been in, enjoying it," Johnson said. " ... My deal, as you guys know, is I don't tune into what's going on, just choose to live in my little bubble, my little world, and do my thing."

Sound familiar? Now, that's a man who honed his skills with quality training time in the blanket fort. Losing Johnson as champion would have been like that day back in the 60s when you tuned in to "Bewitched" to find out that Darrin Stephens had been replaced with an eerily similar, yet completely different, Darrin, fooling no one. Something just didn’t look right.

But viewers got used to the change, and the show remained successful. Denny Hamlin, who might well have turned out to be the new Darrin Stephens, would have made a great, and interesting, NASCAR champion. He is the youngest of the three, and the least publicly polished. "I'm a Gillette Young Gun," he reminded his two bearded fellow 'finalists' at the press conference, which happened to be held on his 30th birthday. "Don't they kick you out when you're 30?" Harvick fired back.

Hamlin is a bit on the unpredictable, even brash, side. He's a scrapper, fighting his way back from knee surgery earlier this year to begin the Chase at the top of the leader board. As NASCAR's champion, he could well have attracted younger fans to the sport, and the rest of us would keep watching just to see what he might do next.

Hamlin is emotional, and not afraid to show it. Early in the press conference, he admitted that "this has been one of the most awkward 30 minutes I've been through." He pouts. He throws water bottles; he throws crew members under the bus.

He also wins races, eight of them this season alone. He has often been called 'cocky,’ but restrained some of that confidence -- and refrained from antagonizing Harvick and Johnson too much -- in the press conference when he said, "I'm in a good situation because if I go out  there and I do what we've done all year and perform really well, then it's up to them to go out there and better us. We don't have to beat one of these guys by a certain amount of positions, we just have to stay ahead and that's it.

"That's not going to be an easy feat. We know that. But we have the speed, I feel like, to do that."

NASCAR history was made on Sunday, We crowned the first, and possibly the last, champion to win five consecutive series titles.

But in the end, it really didn’t matter which one. Harvick, Hamlin, Johnson and their fellow drivers have given us a season full of whisker-close finishes, flying cars, name-calling, finger-pointing of all varieties, Jeff Gordon in a boxing match, and the closest Chase ever. It has been so much fun to watch, and to take part in.

Regardless of who took home the title, the fans were the real winners.

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