Friday 5: Crew chief Rodney Childers looks to faster start for Kevin Harvick team


With a pit crew change made this week, the focus for Kevin Harvick’s team shifts to qualifying better than it has the past two months.

The former Cup champion enters Sunday’s race at Nashville Superspeedway (5 p.m. ET on NBC) seven points behind Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola for what would be the final playoff position. 

Harvick has not started in the top 10 in the last eight races. In seven of those races, he started 18th or worse. As a result, Harvick has not scored any points in the first stage in any of the last eight races. 

“The thing that has probably hurt us the most this year is qualifying bad every week,” crew chief Rodney Childers told NBC Sports. “If you start 21st to 23rd every single week, you just don’t get any stage points, and it takes you the entire race to even get up there close to in contention.”

Qualifying poorly also creates another problem — racing in traffic. That’s been an issue for the Stewart-Haas Racing cars this season.

“There were some things that we thought we had learned to make us better and honestly, it started making us worse in traffic,” Childers said of some of the team’s struggles. “All of our teams kind of got worse. 

“We just couldn’t race because they were so bad in traffic, and then we’ve kind of backed up from there and went back to some things that were working at the beginning of the year, and we’ve kind of been a little bit better again. 

“We’ve had decent cars. We haven’t had great cars. We definitely have got to find more speed, and we’ve got to get (Harvick) more comfortable.”

Only once in the last five points races has Harvick had an average running position within the top 10. The other four races in that stretch, his average running position was between 14th-18th. That’s why Harvick has only 10 stage points in those races. 

Childers says he’s also had his own challenges with the new car.

“It’s learning curve every weekend for me,” he said. “I knew how to do that stuff year after year after year with the old car and the old tech procedures and all that kind of stuff. 

“With this car, I just don’t feel comfortable with any of that. You basically just keep taking the same thing every week and hoping it’s going to be better compared to the field, but in reality you know that is not going to be the truth of it. 

“I don’t know where all that lies and what teams can push and can’t push and all that. I don’t think any of us know that yet. I think we’ve all just tried to stay dead on course and try make our setups a little bit better, just call a better race and do some things better.”

That was among the reasons for changing the front tire changer and jackman on the pit crew this week. Harvick had been critical of the pit crew in two of the last three races.

NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race
Kevin Harvick seeks to snap a 59-race winless streak Sunday at Nashville Superspeedway. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

After placing fourth at Sonoma two weeks ago, Harvick called out the pit crew’s struggles, saying: “We had our minimum of once-a-week catastrophic failure on pit road and got back as far forward as we could, as usual. It is what it is, I guess.”

Asked what he needed for a better finish, Harvick said: “Something that wasn’t a 20-second pit stop.”

His final pit stop at Sonoma was 22 seconds, according to Racing Insights. Harvick was third before the final pit stop. After the pit cycle ended, he was seventh. 

“We need to win a race,” Childers said. “We kind of feel like if you don’t win a race, you might not get in (the playoffs). You can’t really give up a lot of spots on pit road and still try to win races.”

Without the speed in the car and track position, Childers has had to be more calculating on pit calls. 

At Richmond, he used the same strategy as Denny Hamlin’s team, pitting twice in the final stage, to finish second to Hamlin. That strategy allowed Harvick to gain five spots in the last 30 laps. 

At Darlington, Harvick was running 15th on Lap 229 before Childers called his driver to pit road to be among the first cars to stop during that cycle. By the time the pit cycle ended on Lap 250, Harvick was seventh. He went on to finish fourth.

While Harvick has five top 10s in the last seven races, that’s not good enough for a group expected to win — but winless in the last 59 races. 

“If you’re on Kevin Harvick’s car, there is always going to be pressure,” Childers said. “He’s expected to win races, and we’re expected to win races. It’s tough. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the pit crew, the road crew or the shop crew, there’s a ton of pressure to get out there and compete and win a race. 

“We all have to be professionals about it and be big boys, but we all have to get out there and do it.”

2. Lessons from last year

Aric Almirola understands much will be made of his battle to make the playoffs since he holds the final transfer spot, but lessons learned from last season are helping him focus on what matters.

A year ago, he was so far out of a playoff spot that a win was his only chance to make the playoffs. 

“I’ve been doing this so long now that I’ve been in situations to where we’ve been really good on points and not really stressed out about it, and we’ve been in situations like last year where I was really stressed out,” Almirola said, while promoting sponsor ExxonMobil’s Mission: Unstoppable campaign on how its lubrication strategies can help trucking fleets.

 “I got to the point where last season was going so poorly it was almost laughable. I was so stressed out for a while. Then it just got to the point where it was like ‘I can’t control it.’ You can’t make this stuff up. We’d be running top five or top 10, and you’d have stuff break or get in a wreck and we’d finish 30th. It was just like, ‘My goodness, when is this going to turn?’ Then it did.”

Almirola won the pole for last year’s race at Nashville and finished fourth. A few weeks later, he won at New Hampshire to earn a playoff spot.

“I feel like last year played a role of putting that more concrete into my brain, just control what you can control, do what you can do and there’s a lot of stuff that, quite frankly, is out of your control, and you’re not going to be able to change it,” he said.

NASCAR Cup Series Echopark Automotive Grand Prix
Aric Almirola holds the final playoff spot with 10 races left in the regular season. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

The focus is getting every position possible. Even one position can make a difference.

While Almirola leads teammate Kevin Harvick by seven points for what the final playoff spot, how they’ve done in the past eight races shows how narrow that gap is.

In the last eight races, Almirola’s average finish (16.0) is two positions worse than Harvick’s. The key, though, is that Almirola has outscored Harvick 32-10 in stage points during that span. That’s allowed Almirola to outscore Harvick by nearly a point a race in the last eight races. That’s created the advantage Almirola has at this point.

But don’t get the notion that Almirola, who is in his final full-time Cup season, is racing strictly for points.

“You can’t go into the race with any sort of real preconceived notions of how the race is going to play out for you because you don’t know how your race is going to go,” he told NBC Sports. “You don’t know if there is going to be an early caution. You don’t know if your car is going to be really good, or if it’s going to be off and you’ve got to make adjustments. There’s so many variables to try to go into it with a concrete plan … You really have to adapt on the fly.

“I feel like that’s what (crew chief Drew Blickensderfer) has been really good at. I’ve really enjoyed working with Drew this year because he does an amazing job, not only with the race cars and preparing them to go to the racetrack, he does a great job calling a race and just understanding the situation.”

3. One year later 

It was at Nashville Superspeedway a year ago when Kaulig Racing announced it had acquired two charters and would go full-time Cup racing this year. 

Justin Haley runs full-time in one car, while AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric and Noah Gragson share duties in the team’s other car. 

Haley has six top-15 finishes in the last eight races, including a third-place result at Darlington. Earlier this month at World Wide Technology Raceway, Kaulig Racing placed both cars in the top 15 for the first time in a Cup race. AJ Allmendinger finished 10th; Haley was 14th.

“That Cup Series is a whole different level, man,” team owner Matt Kaulig told NBC Sports. “We knew that going in and our expectations, we really didn’t have expectations. We figured if we could run top 20 that that was pretty solid. … If you can crack that top 20 and be competitive, or you can put yourself in position sometimes to be competitive, then you are doing well in your first season.”

Kaulig notes that they had to put a new team together as the organization maintained its three-car Xfinity lineup with Allmendinger, who has led the points since early April, reigning series champion Daniel Hemric and Landon Cassill. 

NASCAR Xfinity Series Tennessee Lottery 250 - Practice
When Cup visited Nashville Superspeedway last year, Kaulig Racing owner Matt Kaulig and President Chris Rice announced that the team would field two full-time Cup entries in 2022. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

When the team announced its plans last year at Nashville, Kaulig noted how it would be a marriage of the next generation car with a next generation owner and next generation team in the Cup Series. 

“We feel like we do things different than everybody else from a business standpoint and from a marketing standpoint,” he said. “We’ve got new sponsors coming on next year that we’ve been talking to and working with and working on. I look at it and (Kaulig Racing President) Chris Rice looks at it as we are building for the future. It is next generation.”

As the organization looks beyond next season, a key question for the team is if it will continue to have a rotating cast of drivers in the No. 16 car or settle on one driver. 

“We’re actually torn about what to do,” Kaulig said. “I think we’d like to have that second car to have a driver in it that is running for points full-time. Ultimately, that’s what we’d like to do. At the same time, we’re pretty happy about with how it’s going.”

4. Stiffer competition

After starting the season by winning four of the first eight races, Hendrick Motorsports has won only one of the last eight.

That’s not to say the organization hasn’t had its chances. William Byron was bumped out of the lead by Joey Logano at Darlington in the final laps. Kurt Busch passed Kyle Larson with nine laps to go and won at Kansas. Larson appeared to have one of the stronger cars at Sonoma until a wheel came off, ruining his chances for a win — and causing crew chief Cliff Daniels and two pit crew members to be suspended for the next four races. 

Car owner Rick Hendrick told NBC Sports: “I’ve never seen (the competition) this stiff.”

Six different organizations have won at least one Cup race this year: Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Team Penske, 23XI Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.

The last four races have each been won by a different organization.

“I think what I’ve learned this year is you don’t have any margin for mistakes,” Hendrick said. “A year ago we were so dominant, we could make a mistake and come back, but you can’t do that now. The competition is too tight. 

“I feel good about where we are, but it’s going to be a dogfight. You don’t have any cushion. … We always used to say this, “On any given Sunday, you had 10 or 12, 15 people that could win.’ For sure you’ve got it now.”

5. Change in procedure

After the controversy with NASCAR “prematurely” calling a caution flag before Ryan Blaney crossed the finish line at last month’s All-Star Race, sending that event into overtime, the sanctioning body vowed to avoid a repeat of such a situation.

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR vice president of officiating and technical inspection, said a few days after the race on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “we’re going to put additional provisions in place … where those things don’t happen.”

According to NASCAR, here is what has changed:

Since the All-Star Race, there has been an increase in communication between the race director, the senior vice president of competition and the series director in race control on the calling of cautions. 

If there is a serious incident that requires an immediate caution to be called, the race director has the power to do so. But when it comes at a key juncture in the race, the increased communication between the three officials in race control is viewed as helping with consistency and accuracy in caution calls. 




Corey LaJoie learning in his week with Chase Elliott’s team


Spending this week with Hendrick Motorsports has proved eye-opening for Corey LaJoie.

He will pilot Chase Elliott’s No. 9 car today at World Wide Technology Raceway after NASCAR suspended Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin during last week’s Coca-Cola 600. This gives LaJoie the chance to drive in the best equipment of his career.

MORE: Corey LaJoie not giving up on his dream 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race

Working with Elliott’s team also has given LaJoie an inside look as to what makes Hendrick Motorsports so successful.

“I thought that I knew what we didn’t have at Spire Motorsports, but I had no idea,” said LaJoie, who starts 30th after tagging the wall during his qualifying lap. “There’s tools that those guys have, intellectual properties specific to Hendrick Motorsports, that even some of the other teams don’t have.

“But the biggest thing that I noticed was just the people and the attitude of the pursuit of perfection. All the key partner teams across all the (manufacturers) all have the same data, but (Hendrick Motorsports has) an unbelievable way of delegating, taking, compacting and making it just digestible – whether it’s for a driver, an engineer, a crew chief.

“I think the fact that they have four incredibly strong teams individually raises the tide for those guys because when you’re sitting in the simulator and William Byron ran a 33.20 (seconds for a lap) … if you’re running a 33.35 with the same setup, you know you have a tenth-and-a-half under your butt and you have to go find it. And then when I go run a 33.20, William next time is going to want to run a 33.19.

“There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the driver’s end. There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the crew chiefs in trying to build the best setups, and the engineers trying to find the best strategies.

“The inner-team competition is one of the biggest things, and I think there are several teams that have that … the healthy ones are certainly evident. But it’s just the overall structure. We have a Hawkeye (camera-based inspection stations used by NASCAR at the track) … all the things that do the same stuff that Hendrick Motorsports has, but the depth of people, collective focus of the goal and the mission is noticeable and evident. It’s a different world.”

It would be easy for LaJoie to be overwhelmed in this situation. His career has been marked with underfunded rides and trying to make the most of his equipment. He’s having his best season in Cup this year. LaJoie ranks 19th in points heading into today’s race.

LaJoie acknowledges the opportunity he has, but he also can’t let it alter his focus.

“It’s been a wild week,” he said. “I can get all sentimental … (about) my dad subbing in for Ricky Craven in 1998 (for Hendrick Motorsports) and all that sort of stuff. But at the end of the day, when I sit in that thing, I don’t know that NAPA is on it, or the No. 9 is on it.

“I’m going to drive it like I have been driving the No. 7 Chevy and putting that thing 19th in points. It’s been a super fun, successful year so far, and we have a lot of work left to do and things to accomplish over there.”

When he returns to his Spire Motorsports ride after today’s race, LaJoie admits this weekend’s experience with Elliott’s team will help him with his own team.

“How I prepare, how I’m going to engage with my team at Spire Motorsports going forward is going to change,” LaJoie said. “I think I’m going to be able to come in there and just apply and share some of the things I’ve learned over the course of the week with (crew chief Ryan) Sparks and the No. 77 team, as well, and I think we’re all going to be stronger for it.”

Dr. Diandra: Is 2023 the season for a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. redemption?


Coming into 2022, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had two career Cup Series wins in 364 starts. But both wins — and his career-high 13th-place season finish — happened back in 2017.

Stenhouse was unceremoniously dropped by Roush Fenway Racing in 2020 and landed with JTG Daugherty Racing. He made the news every now and then at a superspeedway but could be counted upon to head up season-ending lists of drivers involved in the most accidents. In the years Stenhouse hasn’t been at the top of the list, he’s been near the top.

DNFs and accidents have plagued Stenhouse throughout his NASCAR career. Jack Roush went so far as to park the Mississippi native in his early days in the Xfinity Series because he tore up so much equipment.

Stenhouse redeemed himself, going on to win two Xfinity championships.

From the way his 2023 season has started, it looks as though Stenhouse might be on a similar mission of redemption this year in the Cup Series.

Finishing races

Stenhouse started the 2023 season in the best possible way – winning the Daytona 500. But drivers from less-funded teams who win early superspeedway races usually settle to the bottom of the rankings by now.

Stenhouse hasn’t. He ranks 13th heading into Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Standings aren’t as good a ruler this year as they usually are because of drivers missing races and teams incurring penalties. But Stenhouse’s statistics back up his ranking.

Stenhouse has finished every race this year on track, as opposed to in the garage or on the hook. Only Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie have achieved the same distinction.

In 11 of those 14 races, Stenhouse finished on the lead lap. That’s the same number of lead-lap finishes as William Byron. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for most races finished on the lead lap with 13 each.

This time last year, Stenhouse had already racked up seven of the series-leading 18 caution-causing incidents he would be involved in for the season. Runner-up Chase Elliott had 15 incidents.

Going into Gateway this year, Stenhouse has been involved in only two accidents (Talladega and Charlotte) and had a tire go out at Darlington.

Approaching his career best

I compare three years in Stenhouse’s career in the table below: the 2017 season — his best to date — along with last year and the 14 races run so far this year.

A table comparing loop data stats for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showing his path to redemption

Stenhouse’s current average finishing position of 13.5 ties with Christopher Bell for sixth best in the Cup Series. That’s 9.3 positions better than Stenhouse’s 2022 average. He’s even beating his 2017 average by 3.6 positions.

Qualifying results are down a bit from 2017 — but remember that those numbers are from the days when NASCAR allowed multiple practice sessions. Stenhouse is only two positions worse relative to 2017, but 7.6 positions better than last year when it comes to establishing his spot on the starting grid.

Stenhouse’s average running position is comparable to 2017 and 2.8 positions better than 2022. He ranks 20th among full-time Cup Series drivers in average running position. Although it’s an improvement, it’s still more than double William Byron’s series-leading 9.1 average running position this year.

More interesting is the difference between Stenhouse’s average running position his average finishing position. Some drivers run better than they finish. Stenhouse is doing the opposite.

In 2017, Stenhouse finished about 1.4 positions better than he ran. This year, he’s gaining an average of about five positions from where he runs.

One might argue this gain results from the plethora of late-race incidents this year that have removed drivers in the front of the field from contention. But Stenhouse deserves credit for putting himself in a position to benefit from those events.

Stenhouse’s green-flag speed rank is 11th among full-time Cup Series drivers. His 15.3 average, however, is 1.7 positions worse than 10th-place Kyle Busch. Still, it’s impressive that JTG Daugherty is right there in the mix with much better-funded teams. William Byron again has the best average green-flag speed rank at 7.9.

Consistently strong finishes

It’s not uncommon for a mid-pack driver to win a superspeedway race. But Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win appears to be something more. The table below summarizes his wins and finishes for the same three years.

A table comparing finishes for 2017, 2022 and 2023 showing Ricky Stenhouse Jr's redemption attemptsThe difference between last year and this year is striking.

In 2022, Stenhouse finished in the top 20 in 12 of 36 races. He’s already matched that mark this year. He earns top-20 finishes 85.7% of the time in 2023 compared to 33.3% last year. Top-20 finishes aren’t the same as contending for a championship. But they’re a first step.

Stenhouse finished 2017 with nine top-10 races. With about 60% of the season remaining, he’s already earned five top-10 finishes this year.

What’s changed? The Next Gen car is one factor, but it didn’t make much difference for Stenhouse last year. I would point instead to Stenhouse’s reunion with Mike Kelley as his crew chief.

Kelley co-piloted both of Stenhouse’s Xfinity championships in 2011 and ’12. Although Kelley worked with Stenhouse and previous crew chief Brian Pattie since 2020, this is the first year Kelley is back up on the pit box.

Together, they’re basically halfway to matching Stenhouse’s best year.

And another step closer to redemption.

Portland Xfinity race results, driver points


Cole Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when the top three cars made contact and went on to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway. Custer is the 10th different winner in 13 races this season.

MORE: Portland Xfinity race results

MORE: Driver points after Portland Xfinity race

JR Motorsports took the next three spots: Justin Allgaier placed second, Sam Mayer was third and Josh Berry was fourth. Austin Hill completed the top five.

John Hunter Nemechek remains the points leader after 13 races. He has a 14-point lead on Hill. Nemechek leads Allgaier by 44 points.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Portland in overtime


Cole Custer held off Justin Allgaier at the finish to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in overtime at Portland International Raceway. It is Custer’s first victory of the season.

JR Motorsports placed second, third and fourth with Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry. Austin Hill finished fifth.

MORE: Race results, driver points

Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when Parker Kligerman, who restarted third, attempted to pass Allgaier, who was leading. Sheldon Creed was on the outside of Allgaier. All three cars made contact entering Turn 1, allowing Custer to slip by. Creed finished seventh. Kligerman placed 14th.

Custer won the second stage when John Hunter Nemechek made contact with Creed’s car while racing for the lead on the final lap of the stage. The contact spun Creed and Custer inched by Nemechek at the line.

Early in the final stage, Creed gained revenge with contact that spun Nemechek, who went on to finish 10th. A few laps later, Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith had issues. Smith spun Nemechek. After getting back around, Nemechek quickly caught Smith and turned into Smith’s car, damaging it.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Despite the contact on the overtime restart, runner-up Justin Allgaier managed to score his fourth consecutive top-three finish. … Sam Mayer’s third-place finish is his best on a road course. … Austin Hill’s fifth-place finish gives him four consecutive top-five results.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Hemric finished 33rd after a fire in his car. … Riley Herbst placed 32nd after an engine issue. After opening the season with six top 10s in a row, Herbst has gone seven races in a row without a top 10.

NEXT: The series competes June 10 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).