Kevin Harvick: Kids think the NASCAR All-Star Race trophy is out of the movies
The ritual commenced at 10:01 p.m.
They had practiced it before — five times, in fact, this season alone.
First the anointed rode through his processional. Stale light beer and deep-fried delicacies are not typically a champion's perfume, but Kevin Harvick is no ordinary champion.
Wafts of those speedway staples blended with the hot gas fumes from Harvick's No. 4 car, overwhelming pit road as the winner of Saturday's NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway rolled through a crowd of onlookers to his familiar stage.
The champion's court filled in. Again, nothing new to see here. Five victories in this season's first 12 races have given Harvick and Co. ample opportunity to practice, chance after chance to find the best viewing spots in Victory Lane.
There was the dispensing of winning gear; the passing around of hats, T-shirts and more of those cold boys — but this time, Busch only.
Now, Harvick's excellence isn't lost or wasted on just the fans and family crowding around Victory Lane.
His competitors, enviously, can appreciate his stretch of dominance, too.
"They're winning the game right now, for sure," said Joey Logano, who pushed Harvick to the lead on the last lap before finishing third himself. "They just find themselves in the right spot at the right time making the right moves ... and they've got fast cars."
Oh right, the ritual. Well now came the fun part — cracking open those beers and spraying themselves and their fans in between glorious, glorious sips; leaping in the air as Harvick climbed out of his Ford Fusion and onto the roof; and screaming, all at once, together and separately, the only catharsis for a victory like this.
"There's something about winning the All‑Star Race," Harvick said, "being able to win on those nights where you just throw caution to the wind because you know everybody in the whole field is doing the exact same thing, and they all want what you did."
As for the actual race, and how it compared to Harvick's previous triumphs, this one was unique. Not just because the race did not count for playoff points, or stage points, or ... well, anything truly NASCAR-related. Not just because the winner would leave with a $1 million prize.
No, this victory was original because of all the unknowns coming in, none more pressing than an entirely new rules package. That package added restrictor plates at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first time, making the cars less stable, more comparable and more chaotic on the whole.
Not only did Harvick survive that chaos, he thrived in it. He jumped out to the lead in Stage 1, then fell to the back half of the pack in Stage 2, and then rebounded in the final two stages to seal his victory. Mixed in were a few missed collisions, a few bumps from behind. Again, no matter.
He's used to everything at this point.
"I love the trophy and the money, that's great, but seeing the effort that's paid off for the guys on my team?" Harvick said. "I'm proud of them all. That to me is more important than the money and everything that comes with it, because everybody puts so much time with it.
"There's nothing better than seeing them all high-five with (the trophy) in Victory Lane."
So as foam spilled out of those aluminum cans in Victory Lane, here came Harvick himself, finally, spilling out of the driver's side window. Feet hit the window ledge, then wrapped around and up onto the roof. The veins in his neck rocked out. He yelled. Loud. He spun from fans to family to his pit crew behind him, reveling in the entire moment.
We're almost done now, wrapping things up quickly. Harvick procures the championship prize — a floppy posterboard check for $1 million — and waves it triumphantly in the air. Then he's lured away to the Victory Lane interview, another well-rehearsed element of the same tested ritual. His answers are intelligent, but proud. Considerate, but cutthroat.
The coronation was complete. As Harvick answered the last of those questions, the voices of his crew slowly rose from a whisper into a shout behind him.
I - I believe! I believe that - I believe that we - I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!
No one can doubt it now. And no one can stop that celebratory song.