Kevin Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team haven’t been immune to their organization’s across-the-board struggles this season.
But Sunday represented progress for SHR’s standard-bearers.
Harvick scored points in both stages and recovered from an uncontrolled tire penalty on pit road ( Lap 230) to finish a season-best second at Kansas Speedway.
As Childers tweeted afterwards, it was a step in the right direction from where the team was in March at Las Vegas, where Harvick struggled to finish 20th after starting on pole.
Childers could’ve also mentioned another 1.5-mile track. Two weeks after Las Vegas, Harvick finished 10th at Atlanta, but not before spending nearly half that race off the lead lap. At one point, Harvick called his car “the biggest pile of crap” he’d ever driven there.
The typically blistering pace has not been there for Harvick and the No. 4 team. Even so, they’ve still wrung out eight top-10 finishes in 11 races.
And if it hasn’t been an ideal start to a season, well, it’s nothing Harvick and his crewmates haven’t seen before.
“I think we all just want to win,” said Harvick. “You never know how the year is going to start. I think we’ve done a good job with everything that we have, except for a couple weeks where we had some bad luck with flat tires.
“But some years start out good and you go like gangbusters and some years they don’t start out good and you have to figure it out. So that’s just part of the game.
“I’ve been around this for a long time, and you just keep grinding away, and hopefully, eventually you pick it up, and if you don’t, you start over the next year.”
Harvick and his team certainly had to grind away to get this runner-up. Harvick was running fourth at the Lap 230 caution, but his ensuing pit road penalty knocked him to the tail end of the longest line for a restart on Lap 236.
Harvick jumped from 20th to 15th before the caution came out again at Lap 246. That and another yellow at Lap 254 saw Childers supply Harvick with four fresh tires on both occasions.
The new rubber was essential to Harvick’s rally during two final restarts within the last 10 laps.
“We were a little bit off at the beginning,” said Harvick. “The guys did a great job of adjusting our car and getting our car better throughout the day. Then we had a pit road penalty while we were running fourth there and had to go to the back.
“Luckily, we had a couple cautions and Rodney made a couple great calls and put tires on the car a couple times and really put us on offense there at the end and were able to get a couple good restarts and come out with a good finish.”
Living on the “fringe”
From his perspective, it was a solid outing but he and his No. 2 Team Penske crew were missing the raw speed needed to truly contend for a win.
Sunday hasn’t been the only time he’s felt that way this season.
“I feel like we haven’t had many bad races speed-wise, but we’ve been kind of fringe top five a lot this year and haven’t really showcased race-winning speed outside of obviously being able to run well at Talladega,” he said.
“I think, maybe Richmond, we were close there. But Vegas – we were kind of that second- to fifth-place car. And I think (if) you look at Daytona, we ran pretty well, but kind of still in that second to fifth-place car range.
“Just haven’t had that breakthrough of dominant speed, and if we can put that with some execution on our good weeks, then we’ll be in good shape. But this week, I felt like we executed fairly well and just needed a little bit more speed to be able to bring it home.”
Keselowski claimed fourth-place finishes in both stages, and that was where he was when he made his final stop under the Lap 246 caution.
With six drivers opting to stay out, Keselowski put his fresh tires to good use and climbed to third before the Lap 254 caution.
But two more restarts within the final 10 laps checked his momentum.
“I was buried too much,” Keselowski said. “Each restart was just so chaotic. Kevin (Harvick) had the newest tires and the yellows came out and pretty much nullified the advantage that I had and handed it back to the guys behind us. Just kind of stuck there.”
Grateful for my team for putting us in the position to finish top 3. Looking forward to bringing that momentum to Darlington. pic.twitter.com/JTUEq4iEqY
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) May 2, 2021
Climb continues for DiBenedetto
Matt DiBenedetto couldn’t convert a top-five starting position into critical stage points, but worked his way into contention late and wound up finishing a season-best fourth.
With that, the driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford continues a remarkable turnaround from a dreadful start to the season.
DiBenedetto was 34th in points following the first three races. He now holds the 16th and final playoff position, at 12 points to the good.
“I know anything can happen and I’m a positive kind of guy, DiBenedetto said. “I look at everything that way, but if I’m being honest, I don’t know if I would have believed you – that we’d make up that many spots in points in such a short time.”
“I knew we had the strength of the team after such a rough start to the season and just circumstances out of our control. It’s amazing to come back like this, so it just shows that momentum can go one way or another and when it clicks and you get on a roll it can go well.
“I’m just really proud of the team. Nobody ever got down during those times when it was a rough start and we’re really rebounding and just super proud of the entire team.”
Like everybody else, DiBenedetto’s day came down to the multiple late-race restarts.
He and his No. 21 team gambled in this stretch, taking two tires instead of four on his last stop under the Lap 246 caution.
The call held up as DiBenedetto stayed inside the top 10 before jumping from seventh to fourth during the final two laps.
“The restarts at the end were insane, which is pretty normal for Kansas,” he said. “It’s kind of like superspeedway racing on the restarts and it gets messy at the end. I’m glad we survived them.
“I’m glad we were on the bottom lane, which I don’t say much but at the end it worked out because they got all jumbled up and about crashed up top there, so it worked out. We were in the right spots and tried to be smart all day.
“These are the races that you’re super proud of, because we didn’t have a fourth-place car. We were really having to fight, defend to be around that top 10 area at all, to execute and get the car better throughout the day.”
We fought our butts off today! Heck of a hard fought p4 💪🏻 https://t.co/lB4hRkgvIo
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) May 3, 2021
Elsewhere on the bubble
Sunday’s late restarts were disastrous for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose tenuous grip on a playoff spot finally broke.
With 15 laps to go, Stenhouse was racing Austin Cindric off Turn 2 for 15th place when he got loose underneath him. Cindric was pushed into the wall, while Stenhouse spun off him to bring out the yellow.
Things got worse on the subsequent restart with 10 laps to go, when Christopher Bell spun high off Turn 4 and then down into Stenhouse. That impact sent Bell back up into Stenhouse’s teammate at JTG Daugherty Racing, Ryan Preece.
Both Preece and Stenhouse were eliminated from the race, and Stenhouse fell out of the top 16 in the playoff standings. He began Sunday in 15th at 12 points above the cutline, but ended Sunday in 19th at 18 points below.
Stenhouse’s tumble helped others on the playoff bubble to gain ground.
Chris Buescher moved from 16th to 15th, 20 points above the cutline, following an eighth-place finish.
Buescher stayed out during a green flag pit cycle after Lap 200, which saw an uncontrolled tire go into the infield grass. But instead of getting a caution that would’ve given him great track position, NASCAR waited to throw the yellow until after he finally stopped at Lap 226 to complete the cycle.
From there, Buescher returned to the lead lap via wave-around and restarted 19th. With the help of the late cautions, Buescher had a final opportunity to secure a top-10 finish and did so, going from 11th to eighth in the last two laps.
Kurt Busch is now up to “first driver out” at 17th in the playoff standings, yet only gained one point to the cutline (-13 to -12) after a 15th-place finish. He cited trouble throughout the day on restarts.
“We just have to figure out what trends are happening and with the way things are shaking up with the tires, I couldn’t be aggressive on restarts,” Busch said.
“The car wanted to swap ends. That’s not my normal deal – normally, I’m able to plug the holes and go and grab us spots. The pit crew were the ones gaining us spots today. We’ll just keep plugging away.”
In regards to positions, Tyler Reddick was the biggest gainer among the bubble drivers. Reddick moved up four spots to 18th in the playoff standings.
He also gained 20 points on the cutline, thanks in part to finishes of third in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2. It was the first time all season Reddick scored in both stages.
Add it all up, and he’s now 18 points out of the final playoff spot.
“I was able to run the wall really well during the early stages of the race, which really helped keep our track position and earn those stage points,” Reddick said. “Eventually, my car started to build tighter and tighter throughout the runs, and that made my entry on both sides of the track into a bit of a challenge.
“Being looser definitely worked best for our car, and my team did a good job working on the balance of the car to get it to where it needed to be later in the race. We did have a slight miscue on pit road late in stage 3, but luckily caught a caution quickly (Lap 230) and got our lap back, letting us stay in the mix for remainder of the race. It was a good day for us.”