Ryan: The Stewart-Haas Racing saga continues at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. – The familiar Midwestern twang, wisecracking as always, cut through the glum haze of a brief interview with an understandably dejected Rodney Childers.

“All right, guys, I need him,” Tony Stewart said, lightheartedly breaking up a session between Kevin Harvick’s crew chief and two reporters who were wedged between the haulers for the Nos. 4 and 41 Chevrolets. “Come on, come on.”

Moving swiftly and with a smile, Stewart — who isn’t even a month removed from surgery on his fractured back — motioned Childers back toward the side door of the team’s truck.

Thus, another eventful day ended for the most intriguing team in NASCAR’s premier series.

During an oft-controversial yet wildly successful run in Sprint Cup since its 2009 rebranding, Stewart-Haas Racing has been tabbed by some as Team Tumult (because of its mix of charismatic and combustible drivers) but also could be called Team Triumph (because of its two championships in the past five years).

The past six days illustrated the dichotomy well.

Wednesday, the team stunned NASCAR by announcing an impending move to Ford in 2017 – severing a fruitful relationship with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Friday, it captured the pole position at Atlanta with Kurt Busch. Saturday, the organization collectively held its breath as Clint Bowyer, who will replace Stewart next season, took a header off a dirt bike on national TV (but hey, he won the race!).

All of it occurred against a backdrop of lingering questions about Harvick, whose Friday began with being trailed by reporters asking about his contract status for next season (which he cagily addressed with a series of definite maybes and nary a mention of Ford).

His Sunday ended the same way, with a pack of microphones and cameras chasing in search of answers for how he finished sixth despite leading a race-high 131 of 330 laps.

So how did the No. 4 team handle the recent whirlwind?

“I’m just glad we got our lame-duck season started the right way,” Childers deadpanned.

There at least was plenty of upside for Harvick, who effectively kicked off the 2016 season (the restrictor-plate randomness of the Daytona 500 doesn’t count for much, sorry) with the same blinding speed of the past two seasons.

For most of 500 miles, the 2014 series champion controlled the pace and tone of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, deftly wheeling his Chevy as many peers wrestled with a lower-downforce rules package that had them sliding all over the 1.54-mile oval.

But – just as it has many times in a frustrating pattern since Childers and Harvick were paired two years ago – the wheels began to come loose late in the race.

Harvick began struggling with handling on his final three green-flag runs. Jimmie Johnson took the lead with a short pit on his final green-flag stop and opened up a massive gap because Harvick’s stop was slower by 4 seconds.

He emerged in second for an overtime restart but starting on the outside on Atlanta’s rough pavement will neutralize even the strongest of cars. Harvick helplessly watched as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet motored away to its 76th career win – tying Dale Earnhardt.

“We just didn’t execute today,” Harvick said. “The outside just didn’t go. I just had to drive it too hard and got loose. Just got way behind on a pit stop.”

After the brief round of interviews, he didn’t seem perturbed as he made his way to the back gate of the garage to the motorhome lot. Bowyer ran up to Harvick for an animated and friendly discussion. A fan asked for an autograph; another yelled, “Good race!”

The scene was decidedly more somber back at his hauler.

“It sucks to have that good of a car and not win for sure,” Childers said. “I didn’t feel like we could pit when (Johnson) pitted. I just didn’t think our tires would last that long. Then we had the mishap on pit road and lost a bunch of time, and then we were just too loose that last run.

“It’s one of those things you don’t want to beat yourself, but we definitely did it today.”

The frustration was extremely familiar. Atlanta marked the 14th time in the previous 74 races that Harvick led the most laps but didn’t win.

Childers still found some solace in his car’s speed, though, as the team adjusts this year to a new race engineer (who had been ill with flu at Atlanta).

“I feel good about the speed we had all weekend,” he said. “The car drove good. It’s nice to get everyone in a rhythm. Everybody did a great job all weekend. Nothing seemed to change a whole lot from what we had last year.

“You want to win them, sure. But that’s not the way you want to lose them, either. But there’s a lot more we can win.”

Win some. Lose some. It’s the story of Stewart-Haas Racing.

And, in part, it probably is what the team’s namesake stuck around to remind his winningest crew chief as the Atlanta garage hastily emptied Sunday night.