CHICAGO – In baseball, if a team falters, it’s typically the manager that gets fired.
But in NASCAR, if a pit crew falters, you can’t fire the driver.
That’s the situation Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team were in all season. While things got better during the second part of the 26-race regular season, there were still too many mistakes by the boots on the ground servicing Harvick’s race car.
As a result, SHR took the unusual step earlier this week of switching Harvick’s pit crew with the more experienced group of team co-owner Tony Stewart.
While surprising in its timing – right before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup – the move became one of necessity if Harvick was going to be a serious contender for the championship.
“Everybody talked about it and just felt like this was the right thing to do for now with the opportunity we have and give those guys a little time to still hopefully get Tony to victory lane (this season) and be competitive and be in the same environment and do all the same things,” Harvick said during Thursday’s Chase Media Day in downtown Chicago.
“It’s definitely a hard decision, but sometimes you have to make those hard decisions. … You have to look at both sides of it and understand where we are and what we have to do. It’s a tough decision for everybody to make, and you just have to do what you think is right and go forward.”
Will the change in pit crews make a significant difference for Harvick’s title hopes? There’s certainly precedence: Chad Knaus switched up Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew with that of Jeff Gordon’s with just two races remaining in the 2010 season.
Even though Johnson’s crew had taken him to four straight championships at that point, Knaus felt that a fifth one was not in the offing unless drastic measures were taken.
The move paid off with big dividends as two races later, Johnson won his fifth straight Cup crown. It’s questionable whether he would have done so without the pit crew swap.
While Harvick admits his pit crew was fast, it still needed more work on consistency and maturity, elements that could not be risked in the upcoming 10 races of the Chase.
“The biggest thing is, as a group, my guys have done a good job on speed and probably just lacked a little consistency,” Harvick said. “Another 10 weeks and the off-season to get everything fluid as possible heading into next year is probably (best). … It’s kind of the fortunate/unfortunate position we’re in.
“When you look at the 14 group (Stewart’s team), they’ve been together for a really long time, and raced for and won a championship as a group. We just have the access to that experience and to give our guys a little bit of time to mesh and to get that consistency. They’ve got the speed, it’s just getting that consistency that they need to get started for next year.”
Harvick is not throwing anyone under the bus by any stretch. He even went somewhat to an extreme to compliment what is now his former pit crew – but which will be back with him come the start of the 2015 season.
“They do perform well,” Harvick said. “They just have to work on the consistency, and a lot of that just comes with time.
“… My guys are going to do great. They just need time to go through all the situations that all these pit crews that have been together for a long time and have seen those pit hoses get stepped on, tires get hung and lug nuts fall off. It just takes time, and the team they are now isn’t the team they’re going to be when the green flag drops in February at Daytona.”
On another front, while the 16 drivers in this year’s Chase have mixed opinions on whether a champion can emerge without winning a race in the 10-event playoff, Harvick agreed with Jeff Gordon in the belief someone could win it all and not win a race in the Chase.
“I think you could go through the whole format and not win a race and win the championship,” Harvick said. “There’s so many different ways this whole thing can shake out.
“…The way this deal is set up is you can see one of the favorites get knocked out in the first two rounds and then they go back in stride after that because they have nothing to lose. … I think there’s a balance that, for us, that we’ve tried to focus on. It’s not something that you want to switch the flip on and off in how you call a race or run a race.”
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