The grind began with a question. On the morning of the race at Kansas Speedway in May, Kevin Harvick asked crew chief Rodney Childers how he thought the day’s event would pan out for them, at that point in the midst of a season-long search for more competitive speed.
Childers, a devout student of simulation data and one of the sport’s foremost game-planners, knew they didn’t have the requisite speed to contend for the win in a traditional manner, the brand of output for which Harvick and Childers have become known. His response to his driver was brutally honest.
“I said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to race differently than you’ve ever raced,’” Childers recalled. “‘You’re going to have to race like Kyle Busch did last year and you’re going to have to fight for every position all day long and, hopefully, you’re in the top five somewhere at the end of the day, where you can capitalize on something.’
“He went out there that day and he fought and clawed all day long. And at the end of the day, Kyle wins the race and we finish second.”
The runner-up finish stands as Harvick’s best result to this point in 2021. His car turned the eighth-fastest median lap time. But stingy positional defense and a passing output atypical of the 45-year-old driver — 56.29% of Harvick’s pass encounters resulted in his favor, a mark that fared as the best adjusted pass efficiency of any driver in the race — helped maintain good initial track position at the onset (he started fourth). It was a performance that coupled well with mistake-free pitting, where the crew secured a three-position net gain across six stops.
“That’s really what it’s about,” Childers said. “Like, neither of us (Busch’s team and Harvick’s team) had the fastest cars at Kansas, but we sat there and did the right things.”
“We had good pit stops. We had all that going for us. So, it’s the same thing when the playoffs start this year.”
This season’s playoffs — assuming Harvick qualifies — will look markedly different for the No. 4 team compared to their last two efforts in the stage-racing era. With abundant playoff points in the pocket, Childers was previously hip to ignore any stage finish lower than first, redirecting his focus towards optimizing strategy for outright race wins.
Stage points, both now and in the playoffs, are a must for the winless team, a method for round-to-round survival to which Childers has already resigned.
“Yeah, we’re probably going to have to get stage points and that kind of thing,” Childers said. “But I think the thing to look at, too, is not a lot of races left in the playoffs are races where you’re going to pit early and do all those things. You’ve got the Roval in there, but, overall, it’s gonna be about having fast cars and having the best engines and doing all those things, and being fast.
“If you can’t go out there and lead laps and win stages and be in that top five in every stage and get those points, then you don’t hardly deserve to move on anyway.”
Being fast this year seems an elusive goal. Since pairing with Childers in 2014, Harvick had a car ranked among the four fastest each season. The car presently ranks 10th.
While there have been high marks — it was the third-fastest car at New Hampshire and fifth fastest at Darlington — it’s a negligible cumulative improvement over where the No. 4 car ranked (12th) after five races, when Childers went public with how NASCAR’s updated inspection process neutralized the previous season’s advantage for Stewart-Haas Racing.
While Harvick’s speed is a cut above that of his three SHR stable mates, he’s lacked single-race speed capable of winning. That’s something that was on display in New Hampshire where Aric Almirola won with a car ranked fifth in median lap time (and first across the final stage) and Indianapolis where Chase Briscoe was in a winning position in the waning laps with a car that recorded the event’s fastest lap.
New Hampshire was always a stout track for Almirola, where his “shock” win was predictable, and Briscoe won the only stock car race on Indy’s road course prior to this year. These feel like deliberate efforts by SHR to maximize its drivers best tracks and it’s notable that across the next five weeks, Harvick will compete in three races as the defending winner (Michigan, Darlington and Bristol).
Of SHR’s four drivers, Harvick is the only one slower on 750-horsepower tracks than he is on 550-horsepower tracks, per his average median lap ranking. The bigger tracks are his strength and — based on context clues of his interviews last week in which he favored Indy’s 2.5-mile oval to its road course — his personal preference. He ranks third in Production in Equal Equipment Rating on 550-horsepower tracks, trailing only Busch and Kyle Larson, but sits 10th in the same category on tracks utilizing the 750-horsepower package.
It’d behoove SHR to supply him with elite speed this Sunday in Michigan — he’d likely make the most of it — but it wouldn’t be nearly as useful across a playoff slate that’s predominately comprised of 750-horsepower tracks. Regardless, any improvement at this time of the year is a difficult ask. Harvick may very well have to continue the grind.
Childers has a handle on the uphill battle, but it’s still a battle.
“It kind of is what it is at this point,” Childers said. “From a car side, we’re not really going to make the cars much better.
“From an engine side, those guys have been locked up all year long. They had to submit all of their parts going into this year and they can’t change all the things that we’ve been able to change in years past to be able to find more horsepower either. So, when you can’t find more horsepower and you can’t find more downforce, it puts you in a tight box.
“Those are the things that I think all of us are sitting here thinking and talking about. You’re just going to have to race differently and not make mistakes and be good on pit road and do those things. And, hopefully, you can make it through the next round, but it’s going to be tough.”