Through the Gears: Four things we learned in Darlington
Here’s a question for you: What does Kevin Harvick have that fellow modern-era drivers, both NASCAR Hall of Famers in Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett, do not?
The answer, after Saturday night’s win in Darlington, is a victory in each of NASCAR’s “crown jewel” events. Harvick, after capturing his first Southern 500 has also won at Indianapolis (Brickyard 400), Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and the granddaddy of them all, February’s Daytona 500. It’s part of one of the sport’s more diverse resumes, with 25 victories in 14 years spread over road courses, short tracks, cookie-cutter ovals and superspeedways.
Winning in just his third Cup start after replacing the legendary Dale Earnhardt in 2001, Harvick’s spot in the NASCAR record books was already guaranteed. But could the best be yet to come for the 38-year-old driver, paired with a new team at Stewart-Haas Racing? Harvick went packing to SHR from a cushy 13-year gig in the former No. 3 because of the one gaping hole remaining on his NASCAR checklist: a Cup Series title. He’d come close with Richard Childress Racing, but never close enough despite six career top-5 finishes in series points.
So far, despite being the first driver to score two victories in 2014, that battle will be an uphill one for Harvick, who sits 22nd in the standings through head-scratching inconsistency. Parts and pieces haven’t been a strong point, as mechanical failures and tire troubles have marred the landscape of an otherwise splendid season. But with a postseason bid under NASCAR’s new format almost a certainty with those trips to Victory Lane, pay heed to these comments from Jimmie Johnson:
“I definitely think (Harvick) has been the fastest car all year long,” Johnson said follow the Southern 500. “You look at the races that he didn’t finish — Vegas, Texas, and some tracks where they’ve been the fastest car and had issues. I think we all have been chasing them, honestly.”
Oddly enough, could Harvick still be considered the man to beat by his rivals at the moment? Just one week ago, I wondered whether his team would even stay relevant after continually stubbing its toe. But maybe we’re all somewhat misguided. Could the key to the new championship format be simply mastering enough key races to move towards Homestead, throwing consistency out the window en route to five or six wins and the best car in the season finale?
It’s an unconventional way to look at things. Then again, Harvick’s career, through its many ups and downs, has never gone the “conventional” route. It would be a wild way to put the stamp on it, with that title trophy marking a Hall of Fame-worthy career in this sport.
What has made the difference for Harvick this season? We start there while heading “Through The Gears” following the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at the Lady In Black …
FIRST GEAR: Meet a new NASCAR star in Rodney Childers
Harvick’s win at “The Track Too Tough To Tame” in South Carolina was a minor surprise simply because of the track’s ability to tame him. In 17 previous Cup starts at the egg-shaped oval prior to Saturday night, Harvick had only led just three times for 63 laps.
This visit? He led 238, staving off all challengers most of the night and then charging from fifth on a final series of restarts to finish the job. Harvick’s push from behind was the perfect call from crew chief Rodney Childers, who elected to take four fresh tires while other top contenders took two. The risky play was rewarded when a series of yellows — including two green-white-checker finishes — bunched up the field enough times for the No. 4 car to charge through the pack.
“Originally when I made the call, that’s not what was in my head,” Childers said of the wild ending, in which they had to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap. “It worked out good for us.”
His presence on the pit box has also worked out well for Harvick. The driver was so visibly frustrated following a series of mechanical missteps last week that he left Texas without comment. But Childers, whose even-keeled demeanor is the perfect match within an SHR organization filled with strong personalities, kept a potential sinking ship on course. Case in point? Saturday night, mid-race, when the team’s gas man didn’t get the car full of fuel during a pit stop.
“We made a mistake, and we switched gas men as soon as it happened,” Childers said. “I was like, we’re not giving this away. We had somebody different the rest of the race and did an excellent job. But the person that made the mistake I support 100 percent. We’re still a young team and still learning, and that’s something that we’ve just got to work on.”
That type of crisis management, mixed with motivation, is the reason Tony Stewart pursued him vigorously, plucking the mechanic from Michael Waltrip Racing after Childers led two underdogs (David Reutimann and Brian Vickers) to Victory Lane in the last four years. Most importantly, in running the merry-go-round No. 55 car last season, Childers had to deal with a wild variety of personalities. From the flamboyant owner, Michael Waltrip, to an aging veteran in Mark Martin, the crew chief needed to change philosophies virtually every week. That was like batting practice, the perfect prep work to handle the four-driver, “Real Housedrivers” team at Stewart-Haas.
There are other head wrenches — think Chad Knaus and Paul Wolfe — that will always earn greater fanfare. But watch out for the soft-spoken Childers. He’s gaining on the top tier.
SECOND GEAR: Caution flag controversy
For the second straight week, debris and “fluid” caused NASCAR to throw a caution late. This time, it was a broken right front hub from Joey Logano’s car that made the difference with 10 laps left — a call that was clearly open to question. There wasn’t an oil line broken; the No. 22 also had started pulling out of harm’s way. Officials seemed to reach for the flag the second they saw something worth erasing a 1.7-second lead by Harvick at the front of the pack. A few moments later, contact in the back of the pack on a frantic restart caused NASCAR to throw yet another yellow for debris.
NASCAR is hoping, erring on the side of caution that an aggressive, green-white-checker finish erases any thought of an officiating gaffe. But you can only have so many of these “iffy” calls before the close finishes begin to seem somewhat manufactured. There was no reason for Harvick to have to go through hell to score a victory he’d already earned. How could Brian Vickers have spun on pit road, 50 laps earlier and become a clear obstacle, and NASCAR did nothing by comparison? Ditto for Kasey Kahne, who slapped the wall and shattered debris only for the race to stay under green.
The sport’s insistence on using the yellow flag as a crutch late in the “fourth quarter” is equivalent to a referee calling a chinsy foul with two seconds left. Don’t you want the race to be decided cleanly, without outside interference? While the fastest car (Logano at Texas, Harvick at Darlington) still won in both cases, NASCAR is playing with fire in a year where competitive racing leaves “spicing up the product” completely unnecessary.
THIRD GEAR: Consistency vs. Aggression
At times, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth looked like they had a car to beat at Darlington. And while it didn’t work out for either, consistency reigned as both drivers came home with a solid top 10. Earning six such finishes in eight 2014 races, it’s no surprise they’re first and second, respectively, in the point standings.
But a funny thing’s happening in their trip atop the championship standings: both drivers are winless, technically without that “automatic” bid into NASCAR’s postseason. Jimmie Johnson, in fifth, also sits without a victory as all three take the approach of “slow and steady makes the Chase.” It leaves the trio looking a step behind even though on paper, they’re right on pace with past seasons.
“There towards the end, we started fading,” said Gordon, who finished seventh, afterwards. “I feel like I missed an opportunity.”
All three should break their Victory Lane droughts soon enough. But it’s also a sign that, in theory, the fastest cars this season — Harvick, Logano and Brad Keselowski — aren’t caring so much about the stats. Why bother when a win gets you in? A “boom or bust” mentality has been acquired by a handful of NASCAR’s elite, battling squarely with the “play it safe” mode run by Gordon, Kenseth and Johnson for years.
Expect that gambling to only increase as teams use the off week to study the trends. Seven winners in eight races, along with a flurry of these late cautions (see above) mean most could steal one by staying on the lead lap, then making the right gamble late. So for Gordon and Kenseth, the view on top of the mountain may be just a bit overrated. Points mean next to nothing now if you’re winless once the dust settles come September.
FOURTH GEAR: Kasey Kahne’s clunky start
Saturday night should have been a big weekend for Kasey Kahne, who was in contention to win Darlington last year until some late-race contact with Kyle Busch set him back. Indeed, the No. 5 car came charging to the front, leading 23 laps after starting 22nd before remaining a top-10 driver most of the night. The keyword, of course, is “most,” as a late wreck flattened Kahne’s right side while his three Hendrick teammates finished solidly inside the top 7.
So far, Kahne has two top-10 finishes this season, the same number of victories young Chase Elliott now has in the Nationwide Series. Sitting a lowly 23rd in points and a year away from his contract expiring, the pressure is clearly on to get it together. The good news is a win makes everything better — just like Kurt Busch’s Martinsville medicine. The bad news? Jeff Gordon, with a series-best six top 10s and in the same shop, does not look like a near-retiree. That means whatever Kahne does becomes irrelevant should Elliott start ripping apart Nationwide competition and the youngster earns a surprise place in Cup next season.
As expected, most rookies had a rough time navigating the Lady In Black. They caused three of the first four cautions, with Ryan Truex, Michael Annett and Cole Whitt all trying to knock down the outside wall. But give a call to Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. While both had their troubles, slipping back at different points during the race, each wound up slotting inside the top 11. It’s clear at this point those two are tops in the freshman class, with Larson still holding a solid edge. … Since his one-race miss at Fontana for metal stuck in his eye, Denny Hamlin has suffered from self-induced mistakes. An average finish of 17.0 in the three races since wasn’t helped when he missed Darlington’s pit road entrance under green (he wound up 19th, smacking the wall late). Did loose questions of drug use, since heavily refuted, shake the driver’s confidence inside the seat? ... NASCAR president Mike Helton, in effect said “never say never” when asked if the Southern 500 would ever move back to its Labor Day date. That said, those in the know have seen nothing to indicate such a move will happen even with some major schedule adjustments in play for 2015. Track president Chip Wile even said the track was satisfied running in April and had seen an increase in “certain segments” of its audience — strongly indicating the 18-34 crowd NASCAR covets.