There was as much focus on what was said after Kevin Harvick’s victory Sunday at Sonoma Raceway as on how he won for the first time this season.
Crew chief Rodney Childers’ spicy shot at Martin Truex Jr. naturally drew the headlines (and as seen on Monday’s NASCAR America in the video below, it was grounded in some degree of reality, though Truex’s target is debatable), but it detracted from another takeaway.
It’s not only what Childers and Harvick were saying after Sunday’s victory at Sonoma Raceway. It’s how they were saying it.
Just like the three-time series champion they drive for, you typically don’t have to guess where this championship pair stands on something.
Whether it was Childers playfully throwing shade at a rival, or an unusually light-hearted Harvick tossing off jokes between every other answer of his postrace news conference, there was a decided sense of relief about a win that helped ameliorate months of anxiety stemming from the move to Ford this season.
“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “And I think as we started the year, we had good performance, and we went through a little bit of a spell where it wasn’t as good as the first three or four weeks, and then the last month and a half has been really good.
“So it’s just a big undertaking, and one day I think when we get done with this year, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point, but it’s a huge undertaking.”
There actually were many hints since nearly a year ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Childers said Harvick’s postrace anger was because of lackluster preparation stemming from an in-season overhaul as Stewart-Haas Racing began building its chassis. The Ford move “panics all of us out a little bit,” Childers said with the characteristic honesty that he shares with his driver.
When Childers is distressed with a rival, NASCAR or even his own team, he lets the world know in his blunt but understated style. When Harvick is angry, the message is more demonstrative but no less candid.
But they also like to deflect the attention away from their team through their outspokenness, lest the scrutiny finds them the way it did during the 2015 season when the defending series champion’s No. 4 had a weekly reserved parking space in the NASCAR R&D Center’s inspection bay.
During an episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Childers said he intentionally backed off on Harvick’s speed during practices last season and diverted from the team’s ambitiously simple goal.
For a duo whose partnership is built on a relentless quest for perfection, it was a mistake, and they vowed to return to the basics this season. Despite the transition to a new manufacturer, the renewed dedication to winning every lap on the track seemed to be working at the outset of 2017. Harvick led the most laps in each of the season’s first two races and would have won at Atlanta Motor Speedway without an ill-timed speeding penalty.
It was followed by a four-race slump that resoundingly ended with a pole position at Texas Motor Speedway. Harvick since has posted top fives in six of 10 races as he and Childers methodically recaptured their mojo with a meticulous dedication toward improving.
It’s another facet of their working relationship that gets overlooked when controversy (which Harvick admittedly relishes) sometimes gets in the way as it did at Sonoma, but Harvick’s win was a testament to their preparation. Eschewing stage points after agonizing over strategy for days, Childers gave his driver a chance to win by pitting out of sequence, and Harvick took care of the rest once primary threat Martin Truex Jr. was eliminated by an engine failure.
“We were able to manage the car really after (Truex) fell out,” Harvick said. “I felt like he was the guy that we were going to have to race all the way to the end. He had a great car, and once he fell out, I felt like we were 100 percent in control of the race.”
And now, it feels as if he and Childers have re-asserted control of their fortunes after a bumpy year
“There’s still a lot of room for growth,” Harvick said. “There’s still a lot of things we don’t know about our cars that we learn on a weekly basis, and that’s the fun part is to know the upside potential to this whole deal.
“Once we get it all ironed out and how great everybody has been from not only Stewart‑Haas Racing but Ford in putting all this together, I feel like we have way more room to grow than most any team in the garage because there’s so many new things for us and new people and still trying to work all the details out.”
Five months before his 20th birthday, William Byron has eight wins and 15 top-five finishes in 38 starts in NASCAR’s top three national series.
Are those numbers worthy of promotion to a Cup ride with Hendrick Motorsports, which has the JR Motorsports driver under contract and at least one vacancy currently available for 2018?
Until a 2018 replacement is named for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet, Byron’s future is sure to generate debate. The conservative option would be keeping the Charlotte, N.C., native in the Xfinity Series for another season. An online racing prodigy who has competed in real-world conditions for roughly five years, Byron has far less experience with full-bodied cars than the competition.
Which is all the more reason to move him to Cup now.
Byron’s prodigious talent is allowing him to acclimate as quickly as other drivers who have been fast-tracked to Cup with roughly the same training (he should have just under 60 starts in Xfinity and Truck combined by the end of the season).
Kyle Larson, who had limited time in stock cars before coming to NASCAR, had three victories and 10 top fives in 43 starts across Cup, Xfinity and truck before moving full time to the premier series in 2014. Jimmie Johnson had one win and four top fives in 75 starts before his 2002 rookie season. Chase Elliott had five wins and 32 top fives in 80 starts before entering Cup last year.
The comparison trotted out most often as a cautionary tale is Joey Logano, who had one win and five top fives in 23 starts in NASCAR national series before entering Cup full time in 2009 with Joe Gibbs Racing. As exhibited in five seasons at Team Penske, Logano has all-world talent, but there were mitigating factors that spoiled his initial jump to Cup with Gibbs.
Asking an 18-year-old to supplant Tony Stewart, a Hall of Famer who wears his blue-collar roots on his sleeve, as the spokesman for a national home improvement chain was fraught with downsides from the outset. It didn’t help that Stewart remained in NASCAR as the driver-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, adding an unfair measuring stick.
The expectations wouldn’t be as crushing on Byron, who will have the full support from the retiring Earnhardt and automatically will be a better fit with whatever big-ticket sponsor is chosen.
Also overshadowed in Harvick’s victory was that the addition of a third road-course race next season (at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the playoffs) already is having an impact.
Childers and Harvick decided to add the K&N race at Sonoma to the driver’s schedule just to shore up his skill set for turning left and right. Harvick’s twin victories last weekend might prompt an influx of Cup entrants in the K&N race next year.
“It all started when they talked about putting a road race in the (playoffs),” Harvick said. “You’ve got to have it right.”
Adding stages (that were shorter than a fuel run) to a road-course race added another twist – namely, that it allowed some slower teams to gamble on amassing more stage points (or a stage win in the case of 13th-place finisher Jimmie Johnson) while stronger cars such as Harvick’s sacrificed stage results to be well positioned for an overall victory.
Of the 110 available stage points, 63 were awarded to drivers who finished the race outside the top 10. Harvick and fourth-place finisher Kyle Busch compiled no stage points.
“I think some stage points here and there are great, but we felt like today we had a car that was capable of winning the race and we needed to put ourselves in position to try to win,” Harvick said.
What was happening on Martin Truex Jr.’s pit stops that caused such trouble in removing the front wheel? It didn’t seem to be the result of a damaged fender, prompting speculation that it might have been the result of the way the shocks and springs were set up on a road course.
NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman also posited some interesting theories about indexing on this week’s Monday Morning Donuts podcast (around the 21:30 mark), as well as something interesting he recently noticed with how Team Penske is aligning wheels on pit stops.
It wasn’t the first time AJ Allmendinger has been hampered by a mechanical problem on a road course, but Sunday’s 35th at Sonoma Raceway marked the No. 47 Chevrolet’s 10th consecutive finish outside the top 15 – continuing a plunge in its first season with a second car.
Allmendinger is ranked nine spots behind his ranking (18th) in the 2016 points standings through 16 races, and teammate Chris Buescher’s best finish is 11th. While the drivers are getting along well, the team hasn’t realized the short-term benefits of expansion yet. The struggles might be coincidental (as Allmendinger has said), but it’s been a reminder that going faster isn’t correlated with merely adding staff.
After another star-crossed race marred by multiple crashes (which, again, weren’t entirely her fault), Danica Patrick appeared in AdWeek, penning a column about how her personal passions will drive her post-racing career.
The timing was incidental – magazine pieces such as these are planned months in advance – but given the many hits Patrick has taken this year and the uncertainty of her NASCAR future, it was a firm reminder of what could lie ahead as early as next year.