NASCAR Cup Series
It's a Matter of Process for Kevin Harvick, Rodney Childers
Aug 8, 2022
This felt inevitable.
You didn’t really expect Kevin Harvick, Rodney Childers and the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team to go winless again did you?
Last year can be drummed up to a combination of some rule changes and a parts freeze attributed to the final year of the Gen 6 car, and the start to this season can be attributed to where Ford Performance is with the Next Gen and their respective teams’ trial and error process with it.
All of that to say that Harvick himself hasn’t been the weak link.
That isn’t to say that Harvick is suddenly a bonafide championship favorite but the recency bias of the past three months of the season is more reflective of their potential than the first three months. The turning point, according to Childers, was the weekend at Nashville Superspeedway and the statistics bear that out.
"What turned our corner, I felt like, was having 50 minutes of practice at Nashville," Childers said. "We unloaded. We were absolutely horrible, and we changed everything on the car to start the race, and we qualified up front and ran up front all night, and we've done that ever since."
Even at their worst, Harvick was still running around the top-10 most weeks, reminiscent of his final years at Richard Childress Racing when he took the No. 29 to several wins when that organization just wasn’t at that caliber at the time.
Harvick is a difference maker, even at 46 years old, and so is Childers.
So, they’re not thinking championship yet, because they never are this early in any season in which they were obviously primed to contend for more wins and the big prize in November, even if conventional wisdom says we should be thinking about the potential.
"We're going to do the exact same thing that we do on a week-to-week basis," Harvick said. "We're going to do the exact same thing that we've done, that we do every week."
The final 10 races are inherently a crapshoot, and unlike last year’s winless season, Harvick will probably try to avoid any extracurricular rivalries like he endured with Chase Elliott. He has five playoff points at the moment and could add anywhere more from three to win in championship points.
In the era defined by the previous car, Harvick made the final four on five different occasions and was positioned to do it on three others. Is there any reason to bet against them having that kind of run in them again?
That also feels inevitable.
NASCAR promised parity with the Next Gen and the new car has delivered in Year One to the tune of 15 different winners through the first 23 races.
As a result, the Cup Series is experiencing the Race to the Chase of NASCAR’s dreams when this format was first unveiled prior to the 2014 season and tweaked with stages and playoff points prior to the 2016 season.
The complexion of the Field of 16 could change so much depending on what happens over the next three races and could leave some truly competitive teams on the outside looking in leading into the Southern 500 at Darlington on September 4.
First a broad look at the provisional playoff grid:
1. Chase Elliott | 4 Wins | 25 Playoff Points
2. Ross Chastain | 2 | 14
3. William Byron | 2 | 13
4. Denny Hamlin | 2 | 13
5. Joey Logano | 2 | 12
6. Tyler Reddick | 2 | 12
7. Kyle Larson |1 | 8
8. Chase Briscoe | 1 | 8
9. Christopher Bell | 1 | 7
10. Daniel Suarez | 1 | 7
11. Kurt Busch | 1 | 7
12. Kyle Busch | 1 | 7
13. Alex Bowman | 1 | 6
14. Austin Cindric | 1 | 6
15. Kevin Harvick | 1 | 5
16. Ryan Blaney | 0 | +19 Points Above the Cutline
Martin Truex Jr. -19 Points Below the Cutline
Erik Jones -190
Aric Almirola -210
Bubba Wallace -235
For added perspective, Ryan Blaney is currently second in points but would be knocked out of the playoffs should there be a new winner over the next three races at Richmond, Watkins Glen and Daytona.
That’s a road course and a superspeedway by the way.
Martin Truex Jr. is fourth in the championship standings and is currently not on the playoff grid as there are 15 different winners, and like Blaney, he isn’t one of them. Further, Blaney is 119 points behind Chase Elliott so he and Truex can’t rely on the automatic playoff berth for the regular season champion either.
It’s an interesting dynamic because getting two more different winners would then leave Kurt Busch at risk of missing the playoffs because then eliminations would come down to the one race winners with the fewest amount of championship points.
Of course, Busch has missed the past three races due to lingering concussion symptoms that has dropped him from 14th in the championship standings to 20th and 46 points behind Austin Cindric as the one race winner with the fewest points.
What’s not going to happen is Busch falling outside of the top 30 in the championship standings and therefore missing the playoffs even with his win -- which could present an interesting dynamic if he is unable to race before as the playoffs begin.
Barring 15 or 16 winners, Busch would qualify into the Field of 16, even if he doesn’t start a race in the first round. He and his team would have earned that right no matter what happens the rest of the way … again barring a 17th winner.
And again again … that potential has to be entertained between Watkins Glen and Daytona to wrap up the regular season and with Jones, Almirola and Wallace having all contending for wins this summer.
Could you totally count out Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Daytona? Would you count out Michael McDowell on a road course? Are you totally counting out Roush Fenway Keselowski cars anywhere?
No matter how one feels about the playoffs, there is no denying that NASCAR has created a system where fans of every driver can still feel like they have a chance at the playoffs all the way to the final event of the regular season, especially now that that race is at Daytona International Speedway.
Which seat he occupies is an open-ended question, but there is no question that Ty Gibbs should be on the Cup Series grid full-time next year.
In three races driving for the sidelined Kurt Busch, the 19-year-old has finished 16th, 17th and 10th across Pocono, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course and Michigan International Speedway. Gibbs is the no doubt championship favorite in the Xfinity Series with nine wins in 39 starts over the past two seasons -- good for a 23.08 winning percentage.
This isn’t the 90s or 2000s anymore where you somehow risk the development of a driver by moving him up too quickly. Gibbs will be given every opportunity to prove he belongs by the nature of his lineage alone, not that this matters when he has racked up the gaudy statistics since becoming a national touring regular last season.
Even if Gibbs hadn’t continued to win at a near 25 percent clip at the Xfinity Series level, a chance to get in this new and radically different Cup Series car as soon as possible was the reason to get him in one as soon as possible.
It’s the reason Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland are rookies alongside Austin Cindric this season. It’s the reason Noah Gragson is making so many starts this season in advance of his full-time campaign next year.
Everyone is a rookie in the Next Gen car this season.
The circumstances surrounding the debut of Ty Gibbs were less than ideal, but all Gibbs can do is drive the car, and he’s driven it to and around the top-10 three weeks in a row.
Maybe Kyle Busch remarkably doesn’t extend with Gibbs and that opens up the No. 18. Maybe Gibbs loans his grandson out to 23XI Racing and with the funding to operate the car as a third non-chartered entry. Maybe Hamlin and Michael Jordan are able to secure a charter.
Worst case scenario, Kurt Busch may not race next season, but it’s become clearer week after week that Ty Gibbs will be in a Cup Series Toyota Camry in 2022.