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.
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.
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.
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.