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.
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.