Through the Gears: Four things we learned in Phoenix
One thing you can say about Kevin Harvick: he’s a quick learner. Thirteen years ago, in the midst of NASCAR mourning its national tragedy, he won in just the third Cup start of his career. Replacing Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3 wasn’t easy, but he made it seem like a breeze, beating Jeff Gordon — in his prime — by a nose at Atlanta.
It was all so seamless, turning an earthquake of a change into little more than a small tremor while the rest of his team cried tears of healing all around. It should come as no surprise, then, that in just his second race of a new program, the second team of his Cup career, Harvick was already visiting Victory Lane. And, just like in 2001, while everyone else appears to be adjusting to the change — the pit crew still needs name tags — the driver is the one having the most fun, acting like it’s all another day at the office.
“I felt like I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work,” he said. “I get to do this with a lot of my friends, with Tony. I feel like we've had a great relationship in the past. He's driven my Nationwide cars. I feel like as we go through situations, I've learned that Tony is one of the smartest people that I know.”
Stewart sure is. His new team, a complete rebuild with the shop’s recent expansion, took just two races to lock itself into the Chase, beating defending champ Jimmie Johnson, Harvick’s former RCR program, and two entire manufacturers (Ford & Toyota) in the process. That’s impressive, considering there’s so much to worry about within the walls of Stewart-Haas Racing. With four “Type A” personalities in Stewart, Harvick, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, a blowup could happen at virtually any moment.
But Sunday, as “Through The Gears” will illustrate, was a prime example of what can happen when they don’t.
FIRST GEAR: Harvick hauls the mail out west
Three wins in the last four Phoenix races. 224 laps led. It seems like Phoenix has become “Harvick’s House” the same manner that Jimmie Johnson owns Dover or Darrell Waltrip once mastered Bristol. But the biggest distinction between this win over the others is Harvick’s input on setup — or lack thereof. It seems the driver wasn’t even needed on this one despite his previous success on Phoenix’s one-mile oval. Crew chief Rodney Childers, a rising head wrench in the Cup garage, had the mechanical side well under control, to the point the No. 4 car was two-tenths of a second faster than the field virtually all weekend long.
“We’ve been to three tests and two races now,” Childers said Sunday. “I don’t think I’ve asked him one time how he wanted a car set up yet. It’s our job. He doesn’t need to be worried about that. He needs to get in the car and drive as fast as he can, not have to worry about it.”
To have that type of trust within the driver-crew chief dynamic this early in a working relationship can only mean good things. It also frees Harvick up to be the leader co-owner Stewart expected on the competition side. With Busch, Patrick, and even Stewart himself struggling (he was markedly short with reporters on Friday, a sign that healing leg is still pesky) the pressure of keeping the program successful falls squarely on the No. 4. The other trio will have to build off the confidence Harvick exudes, a trickle-down effect that’s needed for the rest of the program. Chances are that doesn’t happen without Harvick and Childers, clearly in some type of honeymoon phase.
“For me it's been adrenaline and confidence that we can do this,” Childers said. “Really just feeds off of that every day. Working 17, 18 hours on some days, I go home, I don't even feel tired. The adrenaline will wear off at some point but hopefully we can keep it going.”
SECOND GEAR: A changing of the guard at Ford?
For years, Roush Fenway Racing didn’t just lead the Blue Oval crowd, it was the dictator of anything Ford. To get any engines, chassis or information from that manufacturer you had to sell your soul to RFR, then watch as Jack Roush’s organization still ran circles around you anyway.
But that era, which lasted almost a decade, appears to be ending. Penske Racing has come out swinging in 2014, its two-car program starting the season with three top-5 finishes in four attempts. Compare that to Roush Fenway, whose three-car team has yet to run higher than seventh and seems a step below its counterparts in handling. RFR is being outgunned in laps led (89-17), poles (Keselowski won at Phoenix) and even in social media relevancy (Twitter? Carl Edwards? Still not a match).
On a serious note, Penske’s Phoenix performance incorporated the type of teamwork and symmetry RFR won’t have with two drivers entering a contract year. Edwards and Greg Biffle have yet to sign new deals; until that happens, the specter of uncertainty hangs over a program that’s been a step below what both have been expecting the last two seasons. And Cup sophomore Ricky Stenhouse jr.? Despite a strong Daytona run, he’s yet to live up to expectations and was woeful Sunday until a free pass late helped him salvage an 18th-place finish.
“We needed to qualify better,” said Edwards, the Phoenix race’s 2013 winner, who could only muster an eighth after starting 23rd. “We did it to ourselves.”
So far this season, Penske doesn’t have to play that blame game. That’s why it’s already a step ahead.
THIRD GEAR: Rehashing repaving
Chances are, if you weren’t a Kevin Harvick fan, the racing at Phoenix left much to be desired. Since a 2012 repave, this track in the desert has dried up in terms of side-by-side competition up front: three of its last four events have come packaged with less than 15 lead changes. Passing has been difficult, if not impossible, as teams deal with tires that don’t fall off, causing too much parity as the top-20 cars run around with nearly the same lap time. How can a driver pass another when both are running the same speed for an entire green-flag run with little hope of gaining an advantage?
It’s an issue not uncommon to Phoenix, unfortunately; Michigan, Darlington, even Pocono (although initial racing was good) fell victim to the dangers of new asphalt. There has to be a way NASCAR can accelerate the aging process, whether jokingly adding a speedbump in Turn 4, doing a crappy job of smoothing it out… whatever it takes. Some of these racetracks, at the rate they’re going, will take a decade to produce solid racing again and race fans simply won’t pay for a seat that long. You can only produce boredom, so many times until …
FOURTH GEAR: Gordon’s great start
Team Hendrick is on Cloud Nine with Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading the point standings while defending champ Jimmie Johnson has two top-six finishes. (Johnson claimed the No. 48 team was “unprepared” after Phoenix, running a step behind the others with 2014 rules. Geez, if these results are how he does while a step off the pace, God help us all when he and crew chief Chad Knaus start swinging for the fences again). Clearly, the 48/88 tandem will not only be in the Chase but should be considered title contenders.
“Hold on a sec,” says a little voice sitting at the other end of the Hendrick shop. It’s hard to hear, since no one has talked about Jeff Gordon this season other than paired with the word “retirement.” (The four-time champ, turning age 43 this season, alluded to hanging up the driving shoes if he won it all this year). Whether he is serious about retirement or not, the title part may not be out of the question. Gordon has started the year with two top-5 finishes, the first time he’s done so since 1997 and sits third in Cup Series points. Add in the Pepsi Test Drive II, an act of commercial brilliance and “old man Gordon” has learned a whole bag of new tricks.
NASCAR’s rookie class had a second straight rough week. Kyle Larson, after a strong qualifying effort, was the only one to even finish on the lead lap (20th). Daytona’s polesitter Austin Dillon (24th) was never a factor, and among the others, Justin Allgaier triggered the only major wreck of the day by spinning out… Danica Patrick was an innocent victim there, sustaining damage and later wrecking again with a flat tire. Despite a good car, where she slowly moved through traffic early, a second straight race with misfortune left her 39th in the season standings… Kurt Busch, whose Daytona late-race spin where no caution was thrown, had his engine go south at Phoenix. It’s not exactly what Gene Haas envisioned paying for — two races, two runs outside the top 20 for the former Cup Series champ. “Just a word to the 41 crew,” Busch said on the radio. “Appreciate the work, but you've got the driver who was the worst luck. Terrible luck.” … Another candidate in the “woe is me” category? Michael Waltrip Racing, still reeling from Richmond-gate has yet to score a top-10 finish this season. Drivers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers are both outside the top 20 in Cup points.