Ryan: The signs of Kevin Harvick’s hot start were there for months

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So where did Kevin Harvick come from to start the 2018 season?

The same direction he was headed when 2017 ended.

Forward (with a nod backward to where his career renaissance started in 2014).

Let’s demystify the conventional wisdom, regardless of Ford’s sudden resurgence after some dire predictions, that Harvick’s re-emergence on top is somehow a surprise.

For as much discussion as the Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s hot start in NASCAR’s premier series has generated, what has been somewhat overlooked is how eminently predictable it was in many ways.

Yes, Martin Truex Jr. is the defending series champion, but you can make a strong case that the fastest driver in Cup since the start of last year’s playoffs is Harvick.

According to Racing Insights, his Ford has turned more fastest laps (380) over the past 10 unrestricted races than any driver (easily outpacing 2017 title runner-up Kyle Busch’s 279 and Truex’s 239), and his average running position in that span ranks second only to Truex.

And the speed has been most noticeable at the critical 1.5-mile layouts such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Harvick has dominated in winning the past two races.

Of the five 1.5-mile ovals that made up half of last year’s 10-race title run, Harvick was at the front in all of them except the season finale, leading 283 laps across Chicagoland Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway (where he ended Truex’s 1.5-mile win streak at five).

Mesh that momentum with a stress-free offseason minus a manufacturer switch, and it’s easy to see why Harvick could win a third consecutive race for the first time in his career.

“Coming into this year, we didn’t have to do all the things we had to do last year switching to Ford,” he told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast in victory lane at Las Vegas. “This year, it was nothing but the car and the bodies and getting the setups fine-tuned from things we did at the end of last year. As we got in the playoffs and on 1.5-milers, our program really picked up. That has carried over into this year.”

While two unrestricted races is an admittedly small sample size, it also should be noted that Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers rarely leave the competition guessing about their intentions – whether it’s in practices, qualifying, or races, they always are trying to be first. They tried sandbagging once after their dominant 2014-15 seasons resulted in countless trips to the NASCAR R&D Center, and Childers explained on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast why it was a mistake.

After a two-season dip in which they lacked the weekly world-beating speed the No. 4 had in their first two years together, Harvick and Childers seem to have regained the magic again in their fifth year.

Leading more than 2,000 laps as they did in ’14 and ’15 suddenly seems a real possibility again — but with a distinct twist that should leave rivals concerned.

Across those two seasons, Harvick had eight victories but an astonishing 19 runner-up finishes. His nickname is “The Closer,” but that moniker belies the fact that Harvick led the most laps without winning 20 times over the past four seasons – or roughly once out of every seven races.

In that lack of execution, Atlanta (where Harvick led the most laps for four straight years but hadn’t won since 2001) had been the most glaringly consistent example. His Feb. 25 victory bucking that trend might point toward the beginning of a career year.

Having led 49.4 percent of the laps in ‘18, it isn’t too early to ponder if Harvick might realize the unrealized potential from his first season with Childers when they should have posted a double-digit win total.

“This feels a lot like 2014, but this is a lot different team than 2014,” Harvick told Stavast (video of the interview above). “We made a lot of mistakes and could have won a bunch more races in 2014 if it wasn’t for mistakes, broken parts and all the new team blues we went through. This is a team that’s got that same speed in the cars with a lot of experience now together. Hopefully, it keeps rolling.”

He likely will keep rolling over the competition if it does.


Since January, Ford drivers privately had been predicting the new Optical Scanning Station inspection process would help shrink their gap to other manufacturers. The results at Las Vegas (six of the top 10 were Fusions) indicated their instincts were right, and the new common splitter also has been singled out as another reason for the seeming increase in parity.

Those changes didn’t happen as a direct result of Brad Keselowski’s lobbying NASCAR last year. But even without obvious cause and effect, the Team Penske driver has shown there can be benefits to thrusting a thorny topic into the public sphere (and absorbing the subsequent heat on social media and elsewhere).

Just as when he put Hendrick Motorsports on blast for its rear skew suspension advancements midway through his 2012 championship season, Keselowski’s goal wasn’t just getting NASCAR’s attention. In ’12, he made a “dual play” in subtly motivating his team to build the cars that won him the championship while also putting Hendrick in NASCAR’s crosshairs.

The optical scanning and common splitter almost certainly were happening independent of Keselowski’s blasts last year, but it didn’t hurt for him to keep the spotlight on Ford’s deficit, keeping it top of mind for NASCAR, Penske and other teams.

The manufacturer wars of the 1990s weren’t pleasant for NASCAR to officiate (they played a major role in driving the ill-conceived “common template” era), but it’s a juicy storyline that’s entertaining for fans and the news media to follow if there are participants willing to face the accompanying criticism and scrutiny that often accompanies speaking one’s mind with an opinion guaranteed to be unpopular in some quarters.

Keselowski’s willingness to put himself in the barrel pays off, and it’s good for NASCAR as well.


NASCAR is right in surmising that malfunctioning pit guns isn’t a good storyline, nor is it necessarily new, but it would be incorrect to suggest it isn’t newsworthy.

The technological advancement of pit guns has become a headline in recent years. When Hendrick Motorsports added one of Kyle Busch’s longtime tire changers in the 2015 playoffs, the focus was on the proprietary knowledge it would bring the team as much as his swiftness on pit stops.

The millions that began pouring into R&D to optimize pit guns was a factor in why NASCAR and the Team Owners Council collaborated on implementing a standardized version this season – and that’s changed the game on why the guns – and any problems associated with them – demand more attention now.

When a failure happens to equipment constructed by teams, it inherently will be less of a story because the reliability is incumbent upon them, and there are ways in which the risks could be mitigated.

That isn’t the case with the Paoli-manufactured pit guns. The responsibility ultimately will fall on NASCAR, which is why it’s imperative the problems get solved before they begin costing drivers points that might make the difference in the playoffs.


When was the last time Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team rebounded as well from in-race adversity as in Sunday’s 12th at Las Vegas? Probably the Oct. 21, 2012 race at Kansas Speedway, where the seven-time champion placed ninth after crumpling the rear of his Chevrolet with a Turn 4 crash midrace.

Much of the team personnel has been overturned since then (including longtime car chief Ron Malec, who left the road this year), but Vegas reminded that as long as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus remain the nucleus, it’s foolish to count them out even when facing the slimmest of odds.

But it isn’t Johnson’s spirit that should be questioned as whether he can adjust to settling for a finish subpar to his standards of excellence.

“At the end of last year and even in Atlanta I was trying too hard,” Johnson said after Vegas. “Just giving 100 percent and driving the car where it’s at and bringing it home is what I need to start doing. I have been trying to carry it and I’ve crashed more cars in the last six months than I have really in any six-month stretch or whole-year stretch.”

This was a point that NBC analyst Jeff Burton made on NASCAR America last week: Accepting a top 15 actually can be tougher than striving to keep a top five.

“How does a seven-time champion get that mentality? That’s a very difficult place to be,” Burton said (in the video below). “I’ve been where I expected to go win races and couldn’t finish on the lead lap. I had to take a step back and say we have to just finish 12th. That’s very difficult thing for someone as accomplished as Hendrick Motorsports.”

This is a tricky situation for Johnson, 42. He likely has only a few years left as a viable contender for a record eighth championship, but he also is trying to exhibit patience for three teammates who are at least 18 years younger and represent Hendrick’s future. The short-term suffering might feed the team’s long-term growth, but it also could preclude Johnson putting a championship capper on one of NASCAR’s greatest careers.


Johnson’s role as a mentor was name-checked by Harvick after his win at Atlanta. Harvick said he wanted to help groom the next generation of stars (“with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks, and there’s so much to learn, but we have to teach them about it”), and he proved it on track when he let Hendrick rookie William Byron back on the lead lap near the end of the 30-lap run to the first caution at Atlanta.

Byron, whose No. 24 Chevrolet was perilously close to destroying his rear tires, said it was “a big favor” that he appreciated but also noted that he and Harvick had developed a good relationship.

“Yeah, it did catch me off guard,” Byron said of Harvick’s help. “I’ve known Kevin for a little bit and try to use him as a resource and talk to him sometimes.  I always find he is so logical, and he is so direct with what he feels and what he does. I think that is something all the young guys could learn from.”

It seems they have a willing teacher.


The CEO of one of Byron’s main sponsors, Axalta, caused a minor stir Monday when he suggested to the Sports Business Journal that NASCAR should consider shortening its races to a window of three hours because it works well in Formula One.

While the comparison wasn’t perfect (the imagery of a steak dinner on a yacht in Monte Carlo harbor rings hollow when juxtaposed against the merits of 500 rough-and-tumble laps at Martinsville), it again reminded why the argument for shorter races isn’t going away.

If that chorus grows from the decision-makers at companies with eight-figure annual investments in NASCAR, it’ll become that much harder for track promoters and presidents to argue that the interests of anywhere from 50-100,000 paying customers supersede those of various constituencies (from TV audiences to sponsors to NASCAR executives who acknowledge an increasingly shorter societal attention span).


Two crashes in three races weren’t how Kurt Busch envisioned a start to a season that is critical to his NASCAR future. He signed a one-year deal for 2018 late in the offseason with an understanding the next contract could be predicated on the first few months of the year.

“That’s what ultimately, in my mind, writes the signature on contracts is performance,” he said in an episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was taped in January. “If we come out of the box strong and win Daytona or are cranking out top fives, 2019 (and) 2020 should come together quicker.

“If we come out of the box stumbling and tripping, that’s going to create the question of what should be done in the future.”

Sunday’s crash at Las Vegas was uncharacteristic for a 2004 champion with impeccable car control, but Busch also said on the podcast that he welcomed the pressure.

“That’s what I like when your back is up against the wall and future isn’t guaranteed, you’ve got to go hard,” he said.

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.