David Graham
November 22, 2015

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Kevin Harvick sat at the dais, scratched his face and cracked a small smile watching Kyle Busch celebrate the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship on TV.

Harvick partied and hoisted that trophy high over his head last season.

He settled Sunday for a more familiar position in his final snapshot from 2015: second.

Harvick failed in his bid to win back-to-back Sprint Cup championships, settling for yet another runner-up finish on Sunday. He could never find the oomph he needed in the No. 4 Chevrolet and was thumped by race winner Busch off the final restart.

''I thought there at the end that the restart, we might do a little better than that, but obviously either the splitter was on the ground or the car was just tighter than it probably needed to be,'' Harvick said. ''I couldn't hustle it and got it tight and got it up the racetrack and got behind.''

He settled for his whopping 13th second-place finish of the season. Harvick had two straight seconds to open the season and ended the year the same way.

Harvick was relaxed this week in Florida and publicly defused talk he was the favorite to defend his championship. Harvick was right, and his second season at Stewart-Haas Racing ended in anguish.

At the start of the Chase, a confident Harvick said about the dominant Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, ''We're going to pound them into the ground.''

Well, it was Busch and Gibbs that toppled Harvick.

''Way to go (at)KyleBusch. Way to ''pound em into the ground'' (hash)champs,'' JGR teammate Denny Hamlin tweeted.

Harvick was all smiles before the race when he made a detour on the starting grid to pose for a photo next to Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet. Gordon, the sentimental favorite, failed to win a fifth championship in his final race and finished sixth. Martin Truex Jr., the fourth championship driver, was 12th.

''Win or lose I can always say I was a part of his last race!! (hash)ThanksJeff,'' Harvick wrote.

Harvick sat in the same seat at the Homestead-Miami Speedway podium last year, jostled his young son on his lap, and egged him on to speak into the microphone and tell the world his daddy was the NASCAR champion.

He could only watch Busch get bathed in confetti on the championship stage.

''I think when you race your whole life and you accomplish what you've raced for your whole life, it's exciting,'' Harvick said. ''I've been fortunate to experience that last year and know that feeling and know how gratifying that is.''

The first of the four drivers to the finish line won the Cup, and Busch claimed it by winning the race, the same way Harvick did a year ago.

A year ago, Harvick seized his opportunity with a relentless dash through the field, picking off car after car to win the race and claim his first championship.

He followed up this season with three wins and rebounded from the brink of elimination in the Chase by winning the third playoff race at Dover to propel him the rest of the way as the heavy favorite.

Busch bested Harvick to the finish line by 1.553 seconds to take away his crown.

''We just stayed the same and never could fix the problems that we had,'' Harvick said.

With only three career wins in 369 races, Truex never really found a sustained hot streak at Homestead - though his No. 78 Chevrolet caught fire during a pit spot. A random spark caught the race fuel and the area around the car nozzle briefly went up in flames.

Truex, who drives for the one-car operation Furniture Row Racing, drove off without much incident.

Crew chief Cole Pearn made the decision with about 100 laps to change only two tires during a pit stop, which briefly shot Truex to the lead. But the gamble didn't pay off down the stretch and he never found the speed to keep pace with Busch and even Harvick.

''We struggled all weekend with the car,'' Truex said. ''We just kept throwing stuff at it and could never get it anywhere near what we needed. I'm not sure what we were missing, but we were missing something.''

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