We’re opening the choices to the current top 10 drivers in the Cup point standings, plus an “other” option.
Best Crew Chief
Behind every great driver is a crew chief calling the shots. NASCAR.com’s poll saw Rodney Childers, who works with Kevin Harvick, voted best crew chief with 63% of the vote. Second place, Chris Gabehart (Denny Hamlin’s crew chief), received 16%.
Who do you think is the best crew chief who can be found in the Cup Series garage?
This from a driver who went winless in 2018 and heard the whispers that his future at Joe Gibbs Racing could be in jeopardy. But Gabehart joined the No. 11 team last year, created a winning expectation and reinforced it not only to the team but to Hamlin.
It’s that mentality that has led to such a strong beginning for Hamlin and Gabehart.
“I think it really boils down to trust,” Hamlin said. “I do my job, he does his. I don’t venture into his department, he don’t really venture into mine.
“He knows I’ve been doing this long enough, when I give him the information I need to make my car faster, he just goes to work on it. He doesn’t try to change how I’m driving to adapt to maybe what someone else is doing. He works on the car to get it where I need it.
“That relationship really works well. We’re building a notebook. That notebook is getting thicker and thicker. The knowledge is getting greater and greater. That’s why you’re seeing the results you’re seeing.”
What they’ve done ranks among the best starts for a driver-crew chief pairing in recent years.
Crew chief Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick won seven times in their first 52 races together (13.5% winning percentage). Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch won nine of their first 52 races together (17.3%).
The main difference is that Childers and Harvick won a title in their first year in 2014, and Stevens and Busch won the championship in 2015 in their first year.
Hamlin and Gabehart might have joined them last year in their first full season together but an aggressive call by Gabehart backfired. A large piece of tape placed over the front grille overheated the engine and forced Hamlin to pit. He never got a chance to race for the lead because the pit stop had put him too far back.
Hamlin and Gabehart rebounded by winning the next points race, this year’s Daytona 500.
When the duo of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson was mentioned to Gabehart after Thursday’s race, he quickly demurred at any such comparison.
“Let me be very blunt,” Gabehart said, “I think Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are the two greatest ever to get it done, period. Write it down, that’s my opinion. Doesn’t mean anything more than the piece of paper you’re writing it on, but I think they’re the two greatest ever to get it done.
“The reason is sustainability. The years upon years upon years upon years that they did it, it’s hard to burn the candle that hot for that long. Bar none, I would never put myself in that category. That’s not for me to do. I’m really embarrassed to even be talking about it to be honest with you.
“But I look at Rodney and Kevin, they’ve had lots of sustainability. Adam and Kyle have had years of success together.
“I think for us, again, all I can say is it’s about the process. Right now the 11 team, we have that figured out to where if we execute to our ability every week we’re going to have a shot to win. Hopefully that doesn’t change any time soon.”
What stands out about Hamlin and Gabehart is the variety of tracks they’ve won.
They’ve won on a short track, on a 1-mile track, on a track between 1 and 1.5 miles and on tracks 2.5 miles. This isn’t a team taking advantage of a setup at one particular track but showing strength everywhere.
“I think he believes in his race team,” Gabehart said of Hamlin. “That puts him at ease. All great athletes really and truly want to do it in a lot of ways on their own. They want them to be the differentiator between winning and losing. But this is a team sport. There’s a million moving pieces every week to give Denny the platform he needs to make that the case.
“I think he knows he’s got that now. Every single week if we execute, he’s going to have a shot to win, and he knows it. I think that puts him at ease and lets him really focus on the mental aspect of winning these races.”
2. Reward for a long night
William Byron raced without crew chief Chad Knaus at the track, overcame a pit road penalty, fought a car’s handling throughout the night, yo-yoed through the field on pit strategy and ended Thursday night with a 10th-place finish that put him in a playoff spot with seven races to go.
Byron entered the race two points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot. Johnson was collected in a crash and finished 32nd, falling out of a playoff spot. Byron took his place. Byron leads rookie Tyler Reddick by 10 points for the final playoff spot.
Byron did all that with Knaus remaining in Charlotte for the birth of his second child. Keith Rodden, a former crew chief, was on the pit box for Byron on Thursday night.
“We had a crazy night,” Rodden said in a video posted by Hendrick Motorsports. “Car was super loose for William to start. Guys battled hard. Made a ton of adjustments. I mean, we made huge adjustments. It took three to four stops to make the car right.
“Did a little strategy to get out front. Then probably got a little too aggressive on that last (pit) call, taking two. We needed to control the restart and move on and have it run green and it didn’t. You hate to see that, but at the end of the day, it’s a good run for us considering how we started and hopefully a momentum builder as they head into Loudon (New Hampshire on Aug. 2).”
3. Preparing for the unknown
It is less than a month before NASCAR races on the Daytona road course for the first time. The Cup Series races there Aug. 16. Even though it is new to the series, drivers will have no practice before the race.
Another challenge is that the course isn’t set yet. NASCAR is expected to add a chicane off Turn 4 of the oval to slow the cars down the frontstretch before they turn into the infield portion of the course.
Just as challenging is preparing cars for that race. That’s what crew chiefs face.
“It’s going to be difficult for everybody,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott. “You’re not going to have any references really. Certainly there are some characteristics of the Roval, but it’s obviously a bigger oval and the speeds are going to be higher. The infield is pretty unique. In my experience, a million years ago road racing there, it’s a track that’s hard to get ahold of.
“That infield is not the easiest to navigate and get the car hooked up on. It’s going to present some unique challenges. Certainly the speed of the banking, it’s a pretty dedicated true chicane unlike what we’ve run at the Roval. That will be different for everybody to get a hold of.”
Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Christopher Bell, said he expects the inaugural Daytona road course race to be “about as challenging as the (Charlotte) Roval was.”
Cup teams had multiple test sessions before he race weekend at the Roval and then multiple practice sessions that weekend to prepare for the first race there in 2018.
“I think the biggest concern right now, the biggest difference that I see right nowfrom the Roval to Daytona is the entry speed into Turn 1 is going to be huge (into the infield road course),” he said. “I don’t know if we can keep brakes on the car for 10 laps if they don’t do something, but they’re working on it.”
4. Now what?
For the first time since NASCAR returned on May 17, Cup teams will have a Sunday off.
So what to do on a free day during a pandemic?
“You get an idea and go down that path and that doesn’t work,” Clint Bowyer said. “I’ve been going over to the lake a lot and I enjoy that. But it’s like, I want to go somewhere different, I want to take my family somewhere. The kids are fixin’ to go back to school or whatever the heck that’s going to look like. It’s just hard, you know.
“Camping. I love to camp, you know, we camp every weekend anyway. And it’s kind of funny to say, oh, let’s take the bus and go camp somewhere. We were going to do that. Good luck finding a campground somewhere you can get into to do that. I would say we’ll probably end up back over at the lake. It makes the most sense.”
Erik Jones says he will head back to Michigan for his best friend’s wedding. Jones is the best man.
“A little bit different wedding than what we all were planning on, but still going to get to do it,” he said. “Little different, but it’s definitely nice to have this coming up. We’ve been working really hard between the doubleheader races and the Sunday and Wednesday races, it’s really been busy for everybody. For the drivers, for the teams – it’s nice to have an off-weekend coming up.”
Kyle Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race in April, but he has dominated the sprint and midget car races he’s entered this year.
From early May to earlier this week, Larson had won 21 of 38 races in the various dirt track divisions and had separate winning streaks of eight and five consecutive races.
Larson’s friend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who also races sprint cars, provided a perspective on what Larson has accomplished.
“I think a lot of people look at it as, ‘Oh, he’s going to a lower series and running and dominating.’ That’s not the case at all. These people, the teams and competitors that he’s racing against are the best of the best in those divisions. In the midgets and USAC we battled hard and he came out on top.
“He’s raced throughout Pennsylvania and raced against our Outlaw teams and what he’s doing is tough to do. It’s not only when you look at the feature wins. I’ve been racing sprint cars over the last few weeks and just thinking back to winning heat races, qualifying first, winning features, battling for wins. …It’s impressive.
“And, I don’t think you’ll see many people be able to go do that in a USAC midget, in Pennsylvania, with the Outlaws; there’s just so much that goes into sprint car racing and what him and Paul Silva have built together and the speed that they have is pretty fascinating to watch and kind of unreal.”
Harvick takes hot streak to Kentucky, one of his last winless tracks
For the last two months, things have been going very well for Kevin Harvick.
In the 12 races since the Cup Series returned to competition on May 17 – with Harvick’s win at Darlington – the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has accumulated four victories, seven top fives and an additional three top 10s.
This year marks the eighth time Harvick has reached or exceeded four wins in a season. The only other time he’s had four wins prior to race No. 17 was 2018 when he had five. It was also in 2018 that Harvick went on to win a career-best eight races in a season.
Among his victories this year was his June 27 win at Pocono Raceway, his first on the three-turn speedway.
That left only two active Cup tracks the 44-year-old driver has yet to win on – Kentucky Speedway and the Charlotte Roval.
Harvick gets his 10th attempt to win at Kentucky on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1).
Through nine starts, the 1.5-mile track hasn’t been too kind to Harvick.
In fact, while he’s led 128 laps there, those all came in the 2016 race. He trails only Jimmie Johnson (206 laps led) among active lap leaders who have not won at Kentucky.
He goes into Sunday’s race with just one Kentucky top-five finish (2018) and five top 10s.
Working in Harvick’s favor now is his 1.5-mile program. He’s led the most laps in four of the last seven races on 1.5-mile tracks.
In the five races at 1.5-mile tracks this season he’s led a total of 306 laps, including 151 in his win at Atlanta.
Following his win Sunday in the Brickyard 400, his second in a row and third overall there, Harvick was asked what it felt like to be competing at such a high level this season.
“I think when you look at the root of the equation, it’s the team, right?” Harvick said. “It’s the crew chief (Rodney Childers) and the driver that have been together, the engineer. We had one engineer move on, but we’ve had the same engineer with Dax (Gerringer). You keep adding little pieces to keep making that puzzle come together and fit together well. But experience plays a big role in this.
“I think for us, when we come to the racetrack, I know I have to be prepared. I know every guy on my team is going to be prepared and has done everything he can during that week leading up to that race to do 100% of his job. If you’re not prepared, you’ve let every person down because that’s the type of team we’ve been fortunate to put together over the last seven years.
“Everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing allowed us to do that from the beginning. It keeps progressing. You keep getting more and more details out of things because you keep the people together, and everybody believes in what I just said. If you don’t do 100% of your job during the week, you have let the rest of the team down because they have.”
Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis
The wizardry of crew chief Rodney Childers will be tested after a random draw gave Kevin Harvick the 11th starting spot for Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Only twice since 2010 has an Indy winner started outside the top 10. Paul Menard won on a fuel-milage gamble after starting 15th in 2011. Kasey Kahne won in 2017 after he pitted before a caution late in the race, putting him at the front. He won in overtime.
Such is the challenge Harvick and Childers have at a place where track position and strategy are critical and passing is difficult.
“I think everybody in the field can have a different strategy and that different strategy can work for any of those people,” Childers told NBC Sports. “Just depending on when the caution comes out. There’s so many different things that can go on.”
Harvick had a dominant car in last year’s race but also benefitted when he pitted from the lead — and before most of the field — on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race. The caution came out while he was on pit road. That put him back at the front while others pitted during the caution. Had Childers not called Harvick in at that point, they would not have been able to take advantage of that break.
But what happens early can determine if a team will be in position to contend late in the race.
If Harvick’s car is good early, the question becomes how many positions can he gain before the field stretches out single file?
Then, there’s the competition caution, which is set for Lap 12. The first stage ends at Lap 50. A full fuel run should make it to the end of the stage from the competition caution.
One thing Harvick could do is what Childers did in 2018. Childers had Harvick, who was running second at the time, pit before the competition caution to change four tires (fuel cannot be added before the competition caution).
The plan was for Harvick to come back down pit road during the competition caution for fuel only, making that a quicker pit stop than those who changed four tires and get out ahead of them. That plan was undone by a penalty for an uncontrolled tire.
Still, it shows what Childers is willing to do. Another consideration is that if a car is about six seconds or more behind the leader, it’s unlikely they can pit under green and remain on the lead lap by the time they get back to speed.
Tire wear also will play in what crew chiefs decide. Tires will wear more early in the race with less rubber on the track.
Then, there’s the thought of how many cautions will there be between the competition caution and the end of the first stage. Last year, a right front tire went down and sent Landon Cassill’s car into the wall, creating a caution on Lap 43. The year before, Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on Lap 42 after a mechanical failure.
There’s much to consider for any crew chief.
“You can’t do the same thing (as the leaders) and have the same result,” Childers said. “That’s where it becomes tricky is just thinking all of it through. Having a good group of people behind you that are constantly thinking about that stuff (is key) and trying to think it through. Just one person, like myself, can’t think it through on my own.”
But those who make the right decisions – and maybe get some help from a well-timed caution – could be celebrating after Sunday’s race.
2. Aging like fine wine
Since the Cup Series resumed in May, nine of the 11 races have been won by drivers 36 and older. Seven of those wins have come from drivers 39 and older.
There’s no doubt that 44-year-old Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), 40-year-old Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing), 39-year-old Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 36-year-old Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) drive for some of the top organizations in the sport.
Still, they’ve won during this stretch, while others, such as Kyle Busch, remain winless. Harvick has three wins, Hamlin has three victories, Keselowski has two wins and Truex has one triumph.
The only drivers younger than 36 years old to have won since May are 24-year-old Chase Elliott at the second Charlotte race and 26-year-old Ryan Blaney at Talladega.
So is this a matter of veteran drivers using their experience with no practice before races? Or is this a case of older talent showing it can remain among the sport’s elite longer?
“The experience level obviously comes into play,” Harvick said. “I think when you are surrounded with a good team and a good organization and are able to work those details out, I think the potential is to drive into your 50’s. Why not? I think with the health side of things and the way that people take care of themselves and work out, I think the longevity of the body on most of us going forward is going to be more durable than what it has been in the past.”
Harvick has won 15 races since 2018.
“I think I kind of had a second life I guess you could say coming to SHR,” said Harvick, who has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2014. “That was very motivating, and I think as you look at it now, for me it is still very motivating. You work your whole career to get into a situation like this.
“I had a long conversation with Mark Martin. You work your whole career to get in this situation, why would you want to give that up and just say, ‘I quit’? As long as (wife) DeLana and my family are supportive, I don’t think the drive and enthusiasm, as far as showing up to the racetrack every week, will go away anytime soon. You just have to balance those things. I think as you look at Martin (Truex Jr.) turning 40 and Denny (Hamlin) and a lot of the success has been from that particular age group. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”
3. Location, location, location
A key to what happens on the track Sunday could be what happens in the stands.
While there will be no fans at Indy this weekend, spotters will move from atop the pagoda to the Turn 1 stands to allow for social distancing. Secondary spotters will be positioned in Turn 3.
With the group stretched out, a spotter for the leader can’t run to spotters of slower cars and tell them what lane the leader wants. Catching a slower car in the corner, especially at Indy, can cost the faster car a couple of seconds or more and allow those behind to close.
It’s something that could impact pit strategy. It did for Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
“It’s a huge thing,” Gayle said of being held up by slower cars. “We were in the same scenario at this (past) weekend at Pocono where we came up on (Ryan Newman). We were running out (of fuel) and were going to do a fuel only strategy, had pretty much decided that’s what we were going to do but it was about staying in clean air for the majority of the time that we could toward the end of that race. We came up on the 6 car (Newman) and it’s notorious for how hard it is to get around him. I’m like, I’m going to give (Jones) one lap to pass the 6 car. If we don’t get it in one lap, we were pitting because we knew we could come out in another clean spot.”
Jones went on to finish third. Newman finished 18th, the first car a lap down.
4. Standout performance
With the focus on Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was easy to miss one of the weekend’s key performances.
Matt DiBenedetto scored the sixth-most points in the two Cup races at Pocono. That’s important because of what the weekend meant for him.
He headed to Pocono 16th in points, holding what could be the final playoff spot. After those two races – and buoyed by scoring more stage points than Hamlin and Harvick — DiBenedetto is 14th in the driver standings. He’s 43 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is 16th.
With the regular-season finale scheduled for Daytona, there’s a greater chance than in previous years that a driver outside the top 16 could win that race and claim a playoff spot. The key is to keep out of the 16th spot. DiBenedetto’s performance last weekend, particularly in each stage, was a key step in that goal.
“Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” said DiBenedetto, whose 17 stage points in the doubleheader were the fifth-most scored last weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs and, for us, really climbing back up in the points to where we think we are running weekly.”
Keep an eye on DiBenedetto this weekend. Crew chief Greg Erwin helped Paul Menard to top-10 finishes each of the past two years at Indianapolis.
5. Rough going
After 15 races this season, Kyle Busch has no wins, no stage wins and no playoff points.
Last year at this time, he had four wins, five stage wins and 25 playoff points.
His avenge finish this season is 14.7. His average finish at this time last year was 6.3.