Helping Harvick: In need of speed, onus falls on Childers to secure track position


Through the initial stretch of races in 2021, Kevin Harvick is noticeably slower than he’s been in years past.

The struggle bus comes for everyone at some point, but the difference is jarring for Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers because of the impossibly high standard the two have set. From 2014-19, they produced the fastest car in five out of six seasons. They ranked second in the outlier year, 2017, a season of transition from Chevrolet to Ford in which they also produced the fastest car in the playoffs.

In 2020, Stewart-Haas Racing’s bellwether program ranked fourth in speed for the entire season and fourth in the playoffs specifically. Through five races this year, they rank 12th in average median lap time. While Harvick managed to secure finishes beyond his speed’s expectation, carrying an 8.2-place average result into this weekend’s race in Atlanta, the dip in his speed ranking, the metric with a near-perfect correlation with finishing position, is a problem with which Childers is reckoning.

“We had some rules changes and some new templates and stuff like that that really changed the shape of the rear wheel openings,” Childers explained this week on SiriusXM Radio’s NASCAR channel. “Just to be frank, it knocked 70 counts of downforce off the cars, and when you knock that amount of downforce off, especially when it mainly comes off the rear, it just completely messes up your aero balance.

“And when it messes up your aero balance and you have limited wind-tunnel time, it’s hard to get that figured out before the season starts.”

Some of NASCAR’s recent changes, such as the 2019 parts freeze, reduced research and development efforts, including limiting aerodynamic study from wind-tunnel tests and computational fluid dynamic simulations, coupled with the new wheel-opening templates are believed to have bolstered the early-season parity. They also incrementally knocked a juggernaut program off of its perch, a demise by a thousand cuts.

After Harvick’s car had the 13th-fastest median lap time in Homestead, Childers immediately attempted to diagnose the problem, an exercise that proved counterintuitive.

“We took a 550 (horsepower) intermediate car the week before Vegas to the wind tunnel, which was our Homestead car,” Childers said. “We got some numbers and some of those numbers didn’t seem right and our aero balance didn’t seem right. And you compare that to the aero balance that you had at the beginning of last year when you were at those places.

“I feel that’s really how we got messed up. We unloaded at Homestead way too loose and then you start questioning all those numbers and then you go to the extreme the next week. We unloaded at Vegas and we were way too tight.”

Harvick’s car ranked an uncharacteristic 18th in median lap time in Las Vegas; he ranked fourth and ninth in speed in the two Las Vegas races in 2020. Their race was an abject mess; Harvick, as the pole-sitter, lost four positions within two laps of the initial start. He was 11th by Lap 7.

Deeper into the race, Childers broke from his usual reliable strategy offerings. He long-pitted Harvick during the second green-flag pit cycle, a call against the grain of a 1.3-second lap time degradation on old tires in hopes a caution flag would lock him into better track position. The bid failed, moving Harvick from 19th to 22nd. Harvick would only get two of those spots back, resulting in his worst finish on a non-drafting oval since last June.

This issue isn’t isolated to Harvick and Childers. SHR’s other cars, for Cole Custer, Aric Almirola and rookie Chase Briscoe, rank 18th, 25th and 27th in median lap time.

Childers remains optimistic — as he should, given his team’s proficiency in coaxing speed out of cars — that he’ll eventually hit on a solution to his program’s biggest problem.

“Our thing over the years has to be fine-tune and use our simulation and unload (well),” Childers said. “It (takes) but one little number to get you off when you’re talking about a million numbers going through that simulation.”

Course corrections of this nature take time and the immediacy of the Atlanta race, on a track where Harvick scored wins in two of the last three Cup Series events held there, might not tell us much. The driver’s reputation at the 1.54-mile facility exceeds that of SHR; if he’s slow, it’s most likely the team’s doing.

Still, there’s a lot Childers can do for his driver outside of supplying a fast car.

Harvick’s efforts to sift through traffic on his own were neutralized in spots last season by Childers, who capitalized on an early-season win (and playoff guarantee) to eschew stage points, regularly pitting in advance of competition breaks. Such maneuvering inherited track position on ensuing restarts, avoiding the scenarios in which the driver’s been vulnerable since the switch to the current horsepower packages.

Harvick thrived with clean air and a balanced car against little traffic; to wit, he won races in Indianapolis and Darlington last year, races dictated heavily by pit strategy, without actually passing for the go-ahead leads on the track.

Whether it be the change to a rules package that stymied his preferred method for teeing up pass opportunities or his decline from a statistical peak, Harvick isn’t the surplus passer he was in his first five years paired with Childers:

With Harvick no longer scoring significantly higher than his expected adjusted efficiency — the percentage of probable pass encounters resulting in a driver’s favor, heavily influenced by speed — a mechanical struggle like the one he’s experiencing further puts the onus on Childers to supplement track position.

Under green-flag conditions last year, Childers retained Harvick’s spot on 64% of pit cycles, on par with the series average, and on 50% of cycles in which they relinquished top-five spots, 10 percentage points higher than the series average:

In terms of how the No. 4 car acquired track position in 2020, Childers’ influence on green-flag pit cycles and Harvick’s ability to defend his position at the beginning of runs were the most valuable traits (outside of their initial track position, decided largely by random draw or formula).

Even with the desperation heave in Las Vegas considered, Childers fared well on his green-flag pit strategy output through the first five races. He retained Harvick’s position on 89% of pit cycles — and 100% of the time when pitting from the top five — for a 14-position net gain. This included a +4 net in the Homestead race, in which Harvick finished fifth despite the car’s relative weakness.

Similar production will come in handy this weekend, the first 500-mile contest this season on a non-drafting track. Harvick is slated to start seventh.

For the majority of his eight years partnered with Harvick, Childers benefited from a ruthless, precision passer with a fast car, able to bend the competition to his will. Now, Childers’ strategic designs must do the heavy lifting, picking off track position without the benefit of his signature brand of speed.

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway


The NASCAR Cup Series’ first short track points race of the season is scheduled Sunday at Richmond Raceway, a presence on the NASCAR schedule since 1953.

Tyler Reddick is coming off his first win of the season last Sunday at Circuit of the Americas. He gave Toyota its first victory of the year.

MORE: William Byron is No. 1 in NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The Richmond race is the first of three consecutive events on short tracks. The series will race on the dirt surface at Bristol Motor Speedway April 9 and the Martinsville Speedway half-mile April 16.

A look at drivers to watch Sunday at Richmond:


Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (COTA)
  • Past at Richmond: No finish better than 11th in five career starts

Reddick showed the promise of what could be a strong season by dominating Sunday’s race at COTA. His victory boosted him five spots in points to 10th. Richmond, a track where he has never led a lap, will be a test.

William Byron

  • Points position: 22nd
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas 1, Phoenix 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Led 122 laps in April race last year

Byron had a top car in this race last season but was passed by Denny Hamlin for the win with five laps remaining. Byron finished third, his career-best run at Richmond.

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 11th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Auto Club, Atlanta 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Four consecutive top-four runs, including a win

Hamlin can be counted on to challenge for the win every time the tour rolls into Richmond. He has won there in 2009, ’10, ’16 and ’22.


Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 14th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Auto Club)
  • Past at Richmond: Best career finish is 7th

After opening the season with top-10 runs at Daytona, Fontana and Las Vegas, Saurez has plummeted into the 20s in three consecutive races. Richmond will present another big challenge. Suarez has five consecutive finishes of 16th or worse there.

Ryan Preece

  • Points position: 29th
  • Best seasonal finish: 12th (Phoenix 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Top finish of 20th in five career starts

Preece’s first full-time season in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 has started poorly. He has been sidelined by accidents in three races and was more upset than most after being parked by a multi-car crash Sunday at COTA.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 16th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas 1, COTA)
  • Past at Richmond: Three top 10s, including a win, in past five races

Bowman seems poised to score his first victory of the season. He has been among the tour’s most consistent drivers to date, with five top-10 finishes in six races.




What takes place in a NASCAR appeal hearing? Here’s a look


Hendrick Motorsports is scheduled to have its appeal hearing at 10 a.m. ET Wednesday.

So what will happen in the appeal hearing? Here is a look at the process, based on the NASCAR Cup Rule Book.

NASCAR penalized Hendrick Motorsports for modifications to hood louvers. Those penalties were:

  • Docked Alex BowmanKyle Larson and William Byron 100 points and 10 playoff points each.
  • Suspended crew chiefs Cliff Daniels, Alan Gustafson, Rudy Fugle and Blake Harris four races each and fined each $100,000.
  • Penalized each of the four Hendrick teams 100 owner points and 10 playoff points.

Before the appeal hearing starts, both sides — in this case, Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR — must file a written summary presenting their case before the hearing.

The summary must not be longer than two single-spaced pages. Any attachments or appendices either side intends to present during the hearing must be included. Such attachments or appendices may include, but are not limited to, video, written statements, diagrams, photographs and charts.

The summary is to be filed by 5 p.m. ET two days before the beginning of the hearing. The summary shall be confidential and not released to the public. The Cup Rule Book says that releasing the summary to the public “may result in a penalty.”

The appeal will be heard by three members. They will come from a pool of panelists. The Cup Rule Book lists 19 panelists. That group includes former drivers Mike Skinner, Lake Speed, Bill Lester, Shawna Robinson and Lyn St. James, along with others in various roles in motorsports.

The Cup Rule Book states that “in seating an Appeals Panel, the Administrator shall take into consideration the panelists’ availability, background, professional experience and knowledge.”

The Cup Rule Book states “the burden rests on NASCAR to show that it is more likely than not that a violation … has occurred, and that the Penalty Notice issued is within the guidelines of the NASCAR Rules.”

Both parties are allowed in the hearing room while each side presents evidence. NASCAR goes first.

After both sides finish, there is a break before an optional rebuttal period. NASCAR has the chance to go first, followed by those appealing.

Once that is complete, NASCAR is permitted one last opportunity to “argue, explain, or present rebuttal on the facts and violation” to the appeal panel since NASCAR carries the burden of proof.

The appeal panelists may ask questions to either group or any witnesses at any time during the hearing.

Decisions by the three-member National Motorsports Appeals Panel do not need to be unanimous.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel can affirm the penalty or adjust it. The panel can rescind some or all of the penalties or increase any or all penalties.

When NASCAR penalized William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Hamlin during a caution in last year’s playoff race at Texas, Hendrick Motorsports appealed. The National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 25-point penalty but increased his fine to $100,000. NASCAR amended its rule book after the panel’s decision.

NASCAR does not have the option to appeal the panel’s decision. Those who filed the appeal can further appeal the panel’s decision to the Final Appeal Officer. That decision can’t be appealed.

Kaulig Racing and Denny Hamlin each will go through this process when their appeals are heard. Kaulig Racing’s appeal is April 5 for modifications to a hood louver. Hamlin’s appeal is April 6 for intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain on the last lap of the Phoenix race.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron returns to No. 1


After last Sunday’s crashfest at Circuit of the Americas, the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings experienced another jumble, and William Byron returns to the top spot.

Byron took fifth place in the chaos of the triple-overtime finish. He and winner Tyler Reddick were the top dogs in the Cup Series’ first road race of the year, Byron leading 28 laps and Reddick 41. No one else led more than two laps.

MORE: COTA finish — Entertaining and messy

Christopher Bell, last week’s No. 1, fell to fifth place after a 31st-place finish at COTA.

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. William Byron (second last week) — Byron, the season’s only multiple winner with two, finished fifth Sunday, marking his career first top five on a road course. He won the pole and the first stage.

2. Kyle Busch (third last week) — Busch continues to make his new partnership at Richard Childress Racing look good. His second-place run Sunday is his fourth top-10 finish in the season’s first six races.

3. Ross Chastain (sixth last week) — Despite being pushed around in the late going Sunday, Chastain persisted, re-emerging at the front to challenge the leaders and finish fourth. He has finished in the top four in all three COTA races and leads the points standings.

4. Alex Bowman (fifth last week) — Bowman continued his seasonal consistency, finishing third at COTA. He has finished in the top 10 in five of six races.

5. Christopher Bell (first last week) — Bell falls from the top spot in the rankings after being booted from Sunday’s race in a late-race accident. He dropped three spots in the Cup points standings to fifth.

6. Joey Logano (fourth last week) — Logano was mostly absent from Sunday’s front-of-the-pack jousting. He limped home in 28th and drops two spots in the rankings.

7. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick bursts into the rankings in a big way, easily outclassing the rest of the field on the way to victory at COTA. Challenged repeatedly by cautions that extended the race into three overtimes, he refused to give up the shot at his first win of the year.

8. Denny Hamlin (seventh last week) — Winless this year, Hamlin nevertheless keeps popping up around the front. Sunday’s late-race mess dropped him to 16th at the checkered flag.

9. Kyle Larson (eighth last week) — Larson seemed to be the race’s pingpong ball Sunday as he was bounced around during some of the tightest racing. He rallied to reach 14th.

10. Kevin Harvick (ninth last week) — Harvick’s final season has been a mix of the good and the bad, with two top-five runs, challenges for wins and a 33rd-place finish at Atlanta. He was 13th Sunday.

Dropped out: Brad Keselowski (10th last week).


Ross Chastain after COTA race: ‘Are you not entertained?’


One driver evoked the movie “Gladiator” after Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas. Another could be penalized for his actions after the checkered flag. Others expressed dismay at what the end of the event became.

A race that had been a thrilling duel devolved into a demolition derby over the final laps, leaving feelings as bruised as some of the cars.

While Tyler Reddick celebrated his first win of the season, other drivers stewed at what the racing became. Three overtimes were needed to finish the event due to incidents in the Turn 1 hairpin. Then again, it should not have been surprising, coming a week after Kyle Busch said: “We have completely lost any sense of respect in the garage between the drivers”.

“Are you not entertained?” Ross Chastain exclaimed, evoking Russell Crowe’s famous movie line. “This is what we love. I don’t love doing it, but … as a sport we’re not boring.”

Chastain is correct, the sport is not boring. But it’s fair to ask if the sport has crossed a line. Is it OK for races to end this way? If not, how to change it is a more difficult notion.

The action has been getting more aggressive this season. It was evident in the Clash at the Coliseum when drivers charged into the corners and slammed into the back of cars as a way to slow down to make the tight turns.

Sunday marked the third time in the last four road course races that the event went to overtime. In the previous 28 road course races — dating back to 2012 — only three went to overtime.

It makes one wonder what could happen this weekend when the Cup series races at Richmond Raceway, beginning a three-week stretch at short tracks that includes the Bristol dirt race and Martinsville.

“These cars are so tough,” Chastain said. “We can run into each other. There are just lines of cars all pushing each other (on the restarts) on the brakes. Nobody is going in there saying, ‘I’m going to hit somebody,’ but it’s just the leader has to check up and it just magnifies itself.”

Chastain’s teammate, Daniel Suarez, was not happy after the race. He ran into the back of Chastain’s car, knocking him out of the way as they entered pit road and then hit the back of Bowman’s car on pit road.

Section 4.4.B of the Cup Rule Book states that drivers can be penalized for “Intentionally damaging another vehicle on pit road.” Such a penalty could result in the loss of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or $50,000-$100,000 fine. Violations may also result in a suspension.

Suarez restarted fifth in the second overtime restart but left the inside lane open. Alex Bowman, with Ross Chastain and Chase Briscoe aligned behind, charged and got beside Suarez as they approached Turn 1.

As Bowman slowed to make the tight turn, he was hit from behind and that sent him into Suarez, who clipped the left rear of Martin Truex Jr.’s car. Truex spun in front of Suarez and blocked his path, allowing the rest of the field to drive by and costing Suarez a top-five finish. Suarez finished 27th.

Suarez spoke briefly with Bowman before having a discussion with Chastain.

“The problem is if you don’t peek out and bomb the guy in front of you, the guy behind you does it to you,” Bowman said. “So what do you do there? It’s not right. The way we race is embarrassing, and if 12-year-olds were doing it, we’d be yelling at them, but here we are saying it’s the best thing in the world on TV.”

Chris Buescher simply called Sunday’s race “our first bumper car race of the year.”

Austin Dillon said: “The end of the race became a typical NASCAR road course race. It was just a mess. We drove up into the hill on a restart and everyone just pile drove into each other.”

Jordan Taylor, making his first Cup start as he filled in for an injured Chase Elliott, was struck by what the restarts were like.

“Every restart, you just get smashed in the front, rear, side,” he said. “So yeah, it was pretty much just survival.”


Sunday’s race was scheduled to go 68 laps but was extended to 75 laps by the late cautions.

Here is a look at the drivers who gained the most and lost the most positions from where they were running on Lap 68 to where they were running on Lap 75:

Most positions gained

18 – Kyle Larson (finished 14th)

17 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (finished 7th)

16 – Kevin Harvick (finished 13th)

12 – Todd Gilliland (finished 10th)

9 – Ryan Blaney (finished 21st)

8 – Noah Gragson (finished 20th)

7 – Austin Cindric (finished 6th)

6 – Corey LaJoie (finished 11th)

Most positions lost

23 – Daniel Suarez (finished 27th)

20 – Joey Logano (finished 28th)

15 – Kimi Raikkonen (finished 29th)

12 – Christopher Bell (finished 31st)

12 – Martin Truex Jr. (finished 17th)

10 – Aric Almirola (finished 30th)

9 – Jordan Taylor (finished 24th)

6 – Michael McDowell (finished 12th)


Tyler Reddick and Kyle Busch, who switched rides before this season, have both won in the first six races.

This marks the third year in a row that two drivers with new Cup rides have won so early in the year.

Last year, Austin Cindric and Ross Chastain each won in the first six races of the year. Cindric had driven a few Cup races previously for Team Penske but last year was his first year in the No. 2 car. Chastain did have the same crew chief and other crew members at Trackhouse Racing after it purchased Chip Ganassi Racing.

In 2021, Kyle Larson, in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, and Christopher Bell, in his rookie Cup season with Joe Gibbs Racing, each won within the first four races of that year.