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.

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

NHRA: How this weekend’s championship battles shape up

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After nine months and 23 races, the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season all comes down to this: one race for the championship.

This weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, California will crown champions in a number of classes, most notably the four professional ranks of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

This weekend’s race is one of only two – the other is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend – that offers drivers 1.5 times as many points as they earn in the season’s other 22 races.

To give you a better idea of how valuable those extra points are, here’s how they break down for all four classes: Winner (150 points), runner-up (120 points), third-round loser (90), second-round loser (60) and first-round loser (30 points).

Drivers also earn qualifying points: 10 for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth, 6 for fifth and sixth, 5 for seventh and eighth, 4 for ninth through 12th and 3 for 13th through 16th.

In addition, every driver that qualifies earns 15 points each. Plus, performance bonus points are awarded for each qualifying session for: low elapsed time of each session (4 points), second-quickest (3 points), third-quickest (2 points) and fourth-quickest (1 point).

Here’s a quick breakdown of what – and more importantly, who – to watch for in those four pro categories:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence is going for his second consecutive championship. But the route to this year’s title has not been nearly as easy as it was last year, when Torrence became the first driver in NHRA history to sweep all six races of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Steve Torrence (Photo: NHRA)

Torrence has still had a very strong season, but his championship hopes are anything but secure. He leads 2017 champion Brittany Force, who has come on strong late in the season, by a mere 16 points coming into this weekend.

And don’t count out third-ranked Doug Kalitta, who at 55 points behind Torrence is less than two rounds of points away from taking the top spot if Torrence is upset. Kalitta is seeking his first career Top Fuel championship.

Mathematically at 86 points behind, even fourth-ranked Billy Torrence – Steve’s father – is still in contention, although it would take a complete first- or second-round meltdown in Sunday’s four final rounds of eliminations by his son, Force and Kalitta for dear old dad to rally to win the championship.

Still, that’s the beauty of NHRA racing: anything can happen.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight is aiming for his third championship but has some of the best in the class all still within striking distance heading into this weekend.

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Hight, who is president of John Force Racing when he isn’t hurtling down a drag strip in his AAA Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro, leads a pair of Don Schumacher Racing drivers, Jack Beckman (46 points behind Hight) and Matt Hagan (-56).

And don’t rule out 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who is 72 points behind his teammate. Force needs to win the race, as well as have Hight, Beckman and Hagan all lose in the first two rounds, to potentially earn his 17th championship.

Still in it mathematically is Bob Tasca III, but at 104 points behind Hight, he would likely have to be No. 1 qualifier, set both ends of the speed and elapsed time national records, and have the four drivers in front of him all be eliminated in the first or second rounds.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders has a very healthy lead in her quest for a third Pro Stock championship.

Erica Enders (Photo: NHRA)

Enders leads teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 92 points heading into this weekend.

Three other drivers are mathematically still in the running, but if Enders gets past the second round, they’ll be eliminated unless they potentially go on to victory.

Those three drivers – who are separated by just five points – are 2017 champion Bo Butner (113 points behind Enders), Jason Line (-116) and Matt Hartford (-118).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: About the only way Andrew Hines fails to clinch his sixth career PSM championship is if he fails to qualify for Sunday’s finals, is kidnapped by one of his rivals or simply doesn’t show up.

Andrew Hines (Photo: NHRA)

Fat chance of any of those things happening.

Hines has a commanding 115-point lead over 2016 champion Jerry Savoie.

Right behind is three-time champ Eddie Krawiec (-116 points), leads last year’s PSM champion, Matt Smith, by 117 points and has a 124-point edge over Karen Stoffer.

Follow @JerryBonkowski