- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Gil Martin was locked in a tearful embrace with the wife of his driver late Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway when a member of Jimmie Johnson's championship crew tapped him on the shoulder.
"Great job," Kevin Harvick's crew chief was told. "We look forward to doing this again next year with you."
Yes, there was a huge feeling of disappointment that Harvick's bid to give Richard Childress Racing its first Sprint Cup championship since Dale Earnhardt in 1994 had fallen short on this historic day, when Johnson won his fifth straight.
There also was a huge feeling of accomplishment, a feeling that perhaps Harvick is ready to claim the title that Earnhardt won six times with RCR and seven times overall.
It wasn't a funeral.
It was a celebration.
"Last year leaving this place we didn't know if Kevin would be with us, if we'd have a sponsor," Martin said in reflection. "So many emotions. We were so off the radar of being in contention, to be standing here today with what would have been a championship probably 49 of the last 50 seasons, I'm so proud of these guys it is unbelievable."
That's what this season should be all about for Harvick and his team, which finished third in the standings, 41 points behind Johnson and two behind Denny Hamlin. They left South Florida a year ago ranked 19th in points with their driver considering options outside the only Cup organization he's known since he replaced Earnhardt after his fatal accident in the 2001 Daytona 500.
They went from five top-5s and nine top-10s to 16 and 29, respectfully.
On Sunday, the team was a speeding penalty on pit road -- it cost him five points for leading a lap -- from finishing second in points.
Pretty amazing when you think about it.
So while there were tears on pit road, they weren't tears of sadness like those in Hamlin's stall after the team blew a 15-point lead with mistakes in the season finale. They were tears of joy for what's ahead.
"It's 180 [degrees] for us," Harvick said. "Last year at this time we all wanted to put a gun in our mouth. Didn't know what we needed to do to fix it. We were running better, but we didn't know if that was going to continue into next year.
"I remember where we sat when I left this race last year. You always want to win, but I'm not going to sit here and be disappointed."
He shouldn't be. Harvick dominated the regular season, finishing the first 26 races with a 226-point lead that would have been almost insurmountable under the pre-Chase format. His 5.8 average finish over the final 10 races also was No. 1, ahead of Johnson at 6.2 and Hamlin at 7.3.
It was the third-best Chase average outside Johnson in 2007 (5.0) and 2008 (5.7).
Speeding penalty aside, Harvick did all he could Sunday shy of winning the race.
As it turned out, even that wouldn't have been enough to beat arguably the best team and driver in the history of the sport.
"I'm not going to look back," Harvick said. "This is going to make us stronger. We have got a good race team that's going to stick around for a while. And you know, I'm just happy to be a part of it right now."
From that perspective, Harvick won perhaps more than Johnson or Hamlin. He endeared himself to fans with his quick wit and in-your-face attitude that stirred memories of the driver he replaced.
He stirred things up on the track with run-ins such as the one he had with Joey Logano at Pocono and off the track by saying during the Chase the sport needed a new champion -- with Johnson sitting right next to him.
Harvick never was better than the last few weeks, taking digs at Hamlin's crew chief before the Phoenix race for taunting Johnson's team and at Hamlin this past week for fuel mileage issues at Phoenix that hurt his title chances.
I'm not going to look back. This is going to make us stronger. We have got a good race team that's going to stick around for a while. And you know, I'm just happy to be a part of it right now.
”-- Kevin Harvick
When called for speeding on pit road on Lap 188 only moments after taking the lead, Harvick didn't hesitate to challenge the governing body on the radio.
Again and again.
"I don't think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach," Harvick said. "When you read off of my pit road times of 49.6 [seconds], 49.4, 50.8 and then 49.6 -- and there's only a handful [of] people that get to see them -- I won't ever settle for that.
"I don't know how you can be speeding when you're on the bumper in front of you if the other guy is not speeding. So that's about it."
Harvick showed an almost Earnhardt-like lack of remorse after spinning out NASCAR bad boy Kyle Busch on Lap 244.
"He raced me like a clown all day," Harvick said. "Three-wide, on the back bumper, running into me I just had enough."
When Hamlin said Busch raced Harvick the same way other RCR drivers raced him, Harvick responded, "I just parked yours."
If the sport needs a new champion, one could argue it needs Harvick to be that champion. He's the working man's man, one who doesn't surround himself with celebrities as Johnson and Hamlin do, one who lives 90 minutes from the hubbub of the NASCAR community in Charlotte, N.C., in a rural community built around farms and mills.
And Harvick finally seems comfortable in his own skin, willing to show his personality among the media and fans.
With a little luck on Sunday, he could have been a Cup champion. Had it not been for the speeding penalty, had he been able to take off out front in clear air, perhaps he could have had something for race winner Carl Edwards and forced Johnson to make a mistake.
"Who knows how it could have played out," Martin said. "It might have played out completely different, but it didn't."
But that didn't -- and shouldn't -- take anything away from what Harvick accomplished this season. That's why all the hugs and tears on pit road were more like a celebration than a funeral.
That members of the best team in NASCAR stopped by to pay their respect shows they expect the No. 29 team to be a threat to one day end their supremacy.
More importantly, Harvick and company expect to be a threat.
"To be this close, it's still disheartening, but I'm looking forward to next year," Martin said. "They'll still have to deal with us."
That's what this season was about for Harvick.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.