BRISTOL, Tenn. — On one pit stop, a socket came off and slowed Kevin Harvick’s crew. Then came the stop where he fell from first to third because of slow work with a tire.
Just under 200 laps remained in Sunday night’s Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway and Harvick’s team was finding ways to beat itself again. For the past three years, this team has been one of the sport’s fastest but has lost several chances at wins because of mechanical maladies, pit stop problems or miscues on track.
Sunday night, crew chief Rodney Childers stepped down from the pit box after the latest issue. On the way to a restroom, he collected his thoughts. When he returned to the pit box, he gathered his team.
“Being mad and taking it out on your guys isn’t the right way,’’ Childers told NBC Sports. “I see people do it all the time.’’
Instead, he delivered a different message.
“They were kind of beating themselves up as the night went and it was kind of getting worse and worse every stop,’’ Childers said. “We had a good talk and you could tell in their eyes, they were relieved after I talked to them and told them you’ve got to believe in yourself and if you believe in yourself, we can win this thing.’’
They responded and helped Harvick win his second race of the season.
It’s that type of mentality Harvick said his team needs to have as it moves closer to the playoffs. While many view the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing as the key obstacles to the championship, Harvick isn’t focused on them. He’s focused on his team.
“I feel like if we do everything right, we can be the rabbit,’’ Harvick told NBC Sports. “We’ve just made some mistakes. We’ve had some things go wrong. We’ve had some miscues. I feel like we’ve fixed pit road. I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of the mistakes. We’ve had a lot of bad luck. There’s just a lot of things that haven’t gone in our particular direction this year, but I feel like the speed of the race cars has been good.’’
“As a whole, I want our team to focus on ourselves. I don’t want them to worry about how fast this guy is running. I don’t want them to worry about how fast that guy is running. I want them to worry about how fast we’re running and how thorough can we be from top to bottom and front to back on that race car and in the preparation from what we do as race drivers to engineers to crew chiefs, and let’s get the most out of our weekend because I believe that will be competitive and have a chance to and be where we need to be when we get to Homestead.’’
WELL NOT DRY FOR TOYOTA
Toyota Racing Development’s president admits that he’s “disappointed” to lose William Byron to Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports next season, but the manufacturer’s well of talent remains deep.
Byron, who leads the points and has won five of the 13 Camping World Truck Series races this season, will drive in the Xfinity Series next year for JR Motorsports.
“William has all to do with our future down the road,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said.
Even with Byron’s departure, Toyota still has 20-year-old Erik Jones, who moves to the Sprint Cup Series next year and 24-year-old Daniel Suarez in the Xfinity Series.
Toyota’s Camping World Truck Series roster includes 21-year-old Christopher Bell, 19-year-old Ben Rhodes and 24-year-old Rico Abreu, among others. Toyota’s development roster includes 16-year-old Todd Gilliland, who has won five of nine K&N Pro Series West races this year, and 20-year-old Tanner Thorson, the 2015 National Midget Driver of the Year, who made his ARCA debut Sunday.
“The reality is more aren’t going got make it than are going to make it,’’ said David Wilson, TRD’s president. “It gets a lot more difficult the further you go up the ladder.’’
With TRD focused on the four rides at Joe Gibbs Racing and two starting next year at Furniture Row Racing, it won’t be easy for young drivers to move up to those seats.
“We’re comfortable now with Furniture Row and Joe Gibbs Racing,’’ Wilson said. “We have to be careful that we don’t push that growth too fast too soon. Getting to the sixth (Sprint Cup) team … was very, very difficult and again you want to make sure you don’t overload your partners and put yourself in a position they’re not performing like we’re performing right now.’’
With Byron moving out of the Toyota camp next year, there could be a place for Gilliland, son of Sprint Cup driver David Gilliland, to possibly run some Truck races for Kyle Busch Motorsports next year. Todd Gilliland will be limited to running at tracks 1.25 miles and under because he is under 18 years old. He won’t turn 18 until May 2018.
“We’re really impressed with what we see with Todd and think he’s truly one of the handful of special guys,’’ Wilson said. “We’re working with him and his father and certainly would love to see him in a Tundra (in the Truck Series) within the next year or two.’’
Thorson is another driver who is intriguing with his success on dirt tracks.
“One of the critical junctures is going from open wheel to a full-bodied car,’’ Wilson said. “How he performs in these couple of ARCA rides and Late Model rides will dictate when he’s ready to attack a K&N season or a full ARCA season. I like Tanner. He’s a good kid. I think he’s got a future.’’
Thorson finished 12th despite overheating issues in his series debut on the dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
And there’s Bell, who has watched Byron win so often in the Truck Series. Bell is fifth in the series points with one win (Gateway), five top-five finishes and nine top 10s in 13 starts this year.
So how does Toyota judge Bell’s progress, considering what Byron has done this year?
“You do start by judging him by his peers and by his teammates because of the equipment, but you have to really work with each one of these drivers as individuals because every one of them responds differently,’’ Wilson said. “Christopher came up the open-wheel level.
“With Christopher, what we’ve seen is from day one he’s had speed. One of the toughest things for him and this is indicative of USAC and POWRi racing is they do a couple of 10-lap heat races and then a 25-lap main. Christopher, when he sees that green flag, he drives it like a 25-lap main. It’s great he has speed. Now he’s learning his race craft, he’s learning to take care of his car, take care of his tires, manage his equipment. We’re very pleased with what we’ve seen.’’
Before last month, Chris Buescher had not finished in the top 15 in a Sprint Cup race. Since placing 14th at Indianapolis, he was won at Pocono, finished 30th at Watkins Glen and placed fifth at Bristol.
The Bristol effort moved him to 30th in the points, making him eligible for the Chase three races before the playoffs. He holds a 13-point lead on David Ragan, who is 31st in the season standings.
Buescher said he saw a turnaround at Kentucky last month before they were collected in a wreck, which we called a “pretty big letdown.’’
The team repaired that Kentucky car — a Roush Fenway Racing car — and Front Row Motorsports used it at Bristol. He had his best overall weekend, making the final round of qualifying for the first time this season and scoring the top-five finish.
“This is very satisfying,’’ crew chief Bob Osborne said of the weekend’s effort. “One thing in our favor for this particular weekend is that Chris has a knack for Bristol. We’ve got momentum on our side.’’
— Kurt Busch’s streak of opening the season by running every lap ended Sunday in a crash at Bristol. He had run 6,273 consecutive laps to open the season before his crash. That equates to 8,691.914 miles.
— Michael McDowell finished 19th at Bristol, marking back-to-back top-20 finishes. He placed 17th at Watkins Glen. This marks the first time in McDowell’s career he’s scored back-to-back top-20 finishes in Cup.
— Kevin Harvick’s victory at Bristol was the first at the track for Stewart-Haas Racing.
— Denny Hamlin had his season-high eighth speeding penalty on Sunday at Bristol.
— Kyle Busch’s average finish in two races at Bristol this year: 38.5. Average finish in all the other races: 10.7.
— Bristol marked the first time in the last 10 races that Hendrick Motorsports placed all four cars in the top 15: Jimmie Johnson was seventh, Jeff Gordon was 11th, Kasey Kahne was 13th and Chase Elliott was 15th.