And then there were 4. As Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. get set for a championship showdown at Homestead-Miami on Sunday evening, Lee Spencer sheds light on the ‘special’ bond behind the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 team, who will be hoping its pairing of Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers can provide the tools to deliver a second Cup championship in 4 seasons, ahead of the final round of the NASCAR Playoffs.
Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli stopped an interviewer mid-sentence when asked about a crew chief for the team’s newest recruit, Aric Almirola.
When considering the competition profiles for three of the SHR teams for 2018, the former championship crew chief told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that his line-up was still a work in progress.
So what’s the end game for Zipadelli? Trying to bring the Nos. 10, 14 and 41 up to the same level as the Rodney Childers-led No. 4 team, for a start.
“How do we make Stewart-Haas stronger? We’re looking at how we mix and match personalities and try to motivate everybody, and get everybody to the level that Rodney and Kevin [Harvick] are,” Zipadelli said. “It’s about building that relationship, building that trust and that team. And that’s what we need to do with the rest of those guys.”
But that’s easier said than done.
Out of the box, Childers and Harvick had instant chemistry. Childers, a former race car driver turned crew chief, worked with a variety of racers before landing at SHR in 2014 – Harvick’s first season in the No. 4 car. In just their second race together, they won. In their first season together, they won five races. And the NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Consider this: Harvick has competed at the Cup level for 17 seasons. In 143 of his 609 career starts, he has been under the guidance of Childers at SHR. Yet Harvick has collected 14 of his 37 wins, 15 of his 21 poles and posted 67 of his 167 top fives, and 97 of his 306 top 10s in the last four seasons, all with Rodney Childers.
And on Sunday, for the third time in four years, the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team will compete in the Championship 4 Round for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“It means a lot, especially this year, switching our manufacturer to Ford, and just seeing the steady climb of performance and peaking as the playoffs started and running good on really every racetrack that we’ve been to, and this has by far been our best round [three top fives and a win], so it’s the right time of year to be peaking,” Harvick said.
“I feel really good about our mile and a half program. Homestead has been a great racetrack for us through the years, and hopefully we can go down there and contend.”
Harvick should feel good about the team’s intermediate program. After all, he the driver who stopped Martin Truex Jr.’s streak of four wins on 1.5-milers at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. That was a pivotal point for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team – and it put the rest of the Monster Energy Cup Series paddock on notice.
“It’s kind of like hanging meat in front of a tiger,” Childers told Mobil 1 The Grid. “If he [Harvick] feels like he has a car that can win and he can see the front, he’s definitely the type that can get a little bit more out of the car and make things happen to get it there.
“It’s cool to see Kevin in these NASCAR Playoffs, and how he steps it up and fights every year. I feel like every time we’ve gone to Homestead, he’s been right there in the hunt and running up front. We feel good about our race cars right now, where we’re at as a race team and Homestead in general.”
Since he joined SHR, Harvick has earned five of his 14 wins on intermediate tracks. That includes Homestead, where he won the season finale and the championship in 2014. Harvick leads the Cup tour with an average finish of 6.9 at Homestead. Since the Championship 4 format began, Harvick has led 179 of 981 laps and averaged a second-place finish.
“Our intention is to go down there and win the championship, and I think if you’re one of those four and you don’t have that mentality, you’re not prepared for what you’re getting into, because I feel like you’re going to have to win the race,” Harvick said. “You’re going to have to not make mistakes, and we’ve seen it year after year, mistakes and circumstances and things. Things happen, and you have to be there first. You have to have a chance, and you have to think you can do it. And we know we can do it.
“I think there’s three past champions and the guy [Truex Jr.] that’s run well all year and won a lot of races. It’s not like it’s going to be ‘just check the box and send the check’. It’s guys that have done this before and won races. But for us, we’re confident in our team and feel like we should have a chance.”
That confidence stems from the trust that Harvick holds in Childers, and vice versa. Before the pair cemented their relationship during that first season together, they spent time off the track building a bond. The investment paid off, with a career-best eight poles and a record-tying five season wins. And the respect between driver and crew chief has only grown since then.
“There’s a lot of trust there – and friendship,” Childers said. “I think Kevin knows that I’m going to give 100 percent, this team is going to give 100 percent, but we also know that he’s going to give 100 percent. He also knows that we’re going to work together, work through things and try to make things better every day.
“It all just seemed to click from the get-go, and it has stayed strong from that point. I’m just grateful that it has stayed that good.”
Both Childers and Harvick have described their relationship as a brotherhood. When they’re apart, they’re still texting and calling each other about racing and a variety of common threads that unite them.
“I’m definitely closer to Kevin than I am my own brother,” Childers said. “That’s for sure. He’s been great to me – and hopefully, he thinks I’ve been great to him. It’s definitely something that we’ve grown over the last four years, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
But for all the fun the pair have had, nothing could be more gratifying than celebrating a second championship together at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday night.