NASCAR: Harvick’s title a just reward for crew chief Rodney Childers

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The narratives this Monday morning on the cusp of Kevin Harvick breaking through for his elusive first NASCAR Sprint Cup title will largely focus on “The Closer” himself.

Some may choose to ignore “Smoke” and the crew chief, Rodney Childers, which would be an oversight.

In partnership with Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas, Tony Stewart deserves credit, praise and foresight for the ability to make the switch to bring Harvick in from the outside, and to pair him with Childers.

Crucially, the timing of Childers’ announcement being August 2013, when he could afford to begin 2014 preparations in the final 12-14 weeks of the 2013 season, allowed him to go the drawing board and focus fully on the next year earlier than most would have the chance to do.

So in the first race where the lottery of restrictor plate racing wasn’t a factor in 2014, Childers and Harvick had the car to beat at Phoenix International Raceway – in March – in the second race of the year. It was quite a sign that a new pairing could gel so quickly, and be so fast.

It also served as the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet team’s first notice it would be a force to be reckoned with for the majority of the year.

From there, all the poles and all the laps led followed – even if the wins didn’t due to a variety of mishaps – but the team never lost its focus or devotion to being the best out of the box every week.

Stewart paid tribute to that in the championship press conference last night.

“Like we mentioned earlier in media week, it was real evident to me, their first test at Charlotte, and I got phone calls both nights after the test telling me how it went and the speed that they had.” Stewart said.  “I remember having two tests during the off-season, and those guys were just unbelievably fast at both of those tests.  I thought, this is going to be a great start to the year.

“But the thing that was remarkable for these guys is the fact that they had speed every week, everywhere we’ve been, and that’s something that’s extremely hard to do in this series with so many different disciplines. Their stat of leading over 1,000 laps in the Chase, that’s something that’s no easy feat in itself.”

Coming into the Chase finale itself, Childers actually felt less pressure than in prior weeks. Homestead was the culmination of everything prior all building up to a final crescendo.

“I almost felt like the weekend went smoother for me than what I ever expected,” Childers said. “I think back to the way I was at Charlotte and some of those other races where I was pretty much sick on the pit box.  I felt good all weekend, and the guys did an excellent job.  Kevin did an excellent job, and I felt like we came down here as prepared as we could be, and I was actually okay, if it went good or bad.

“I don’t think at the start of that race — I didn’t feel like there was one person or one thing that we had not done, that we had not prepared ourselves for.  All you can do is go out there and give it your all.  Thankfully everything worked out.”

Childers made the winning call on the final pit stop to take 4 tires, and Harvick did the rest.

“Honestly, when it came down to that, I didn’t even flinch. I thought that was the right thing to do,” he admitted.

Childers, who had been with Michael Waltrip Racing a year ago and was out of the team before its Richmond Chase-affecting spin saga, took a moment to reflect on all the people that helped put him in this position.

“The thing I think about is every — and I’m sure Tony has been through this 100 times, but I think about every single person that ever had anything to do with me,” Childers said. “Like the first go-kart my mom ever bought me, the times she took me to the racetrack, and the first guy that called me from a cart shop and wanted me to drive for him, and then the next guy that – a lot of you guys know Clay Rogers that tries to make some races every now and then and stuff and still races a lot.

“But I helped him in go-karts, and his dad called me and wanted to go to lunch one day, and he said, hey, I’m going to buy a late model stock car for you to drive, and was completely blown away. I was way over my head, had no idea what I was doing. I went to seven races that first year and completely sucked at all of them. And then over the winter, took the whole car apart, did everything the way I wanted, and I went to the first race, sat on the pole and led every lap.

“From that point on, he bought another car, and he said, I want you to keep up Clayton’s car and crew chief for him. So that one year was the year that I realized that I don’t really need to drive. I enjoy watching him win as much as I like winning myself. If it wasn’t for that one person that ever told me, hey, I want you to crew chief for my son, I wouldn’t be doing this right now.

“I have a lot of things that just kept running through my head all week this week. I was fortunate enough to have my mom and dad here. That’s the first time they’ve ever been to a Cup race that we’ve won. Two of my very best friends since I was a little kid were here. I don’t know, I mean, it’s just kind of unreal, I guess you could say. There’s just a lot of people that you want to thank, and it’s hard to do that a lot of times.”

He can feel thankful for pushing through to become a champion at NASCAR’s highest level, and knowing his hard work ethic and excellent season from the pit box helped make it happen.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.