Kevin Harvick and the Stewart-Haas stable are playing catch-up early
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Kevin Harvick sat on the pole at Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, and surely, conventional wisdom said that considering his nine victories in the 2020 season, he would lead at least a lap.
Harvick didn’t lead at all at Las Vegas and has led just 17 laps all year. Last season, after five races, Harvick had led 318 laps.
Before going all doom and gloom for Harvick, he does have four top-10 finishes and sits seventh in the standings. Many drivers would take that after the first five races, as it certainly is more preferable to maintain position in the standings than have to gain when trying to solidify playoff position.
Looking beyond Harvick at the rest of the Stewart-Haas Racing stable, Cole Custer sits 20th in the standings, Chase Briscoe in 25th and Aric Almirola in 26th. This is not what a team that prides itself on winning and hiring pure racers had in mind when projecting its start in 2021.
"Every year, you don’t really know what to expect when things change," Harvick said last week coming off a 20th-place finish at Las Vegas. "I think, for us, we just missed it on all levels with all the different things that are going on from last year, so I think whether we overthought it or just missed it has yet to be seen."
What changed, in part, was how NASCAR inspects the cars. NASCAR has cracked down on the shape of the rear wheel well. NASCAR’s camera-and-laser scanning system was not measuring as accurately as a shaped template could, and teams were taking advantage of that.
NASCAR brought back the template for 2021, and Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Tuesday that the changes cost the team 70 counts of downforce.
Reading between the lines: It certainly cost other teams downforce as well, so SHR was just doing a better job in that area, or it hasn’t made the gains back in other areas when compared to the competition.
"It completely messes up your aero balance," Childers said on SiriusXM.
"When it messes up your aero balance and you have limited wind tunnel time, it’s hard to get that figured out before the season starts. ... We’ve got to keep fighting and getting better, and hopefully, those updates don’t end up hurting us more than other guys, and hopefully, we can get it figured out."
Harvick’s lap times last week at Phoenix, where he finished sixth, were not bad, but he had trouble on the restarts.
"We struggled on the restarts, and we just could never get the track position," Harvick said. "After seven or eight laps, it felt like our Mustang was good enough to run in the top three, but we could never get going on the restarts to be able to get that track position to take advantage of that."
It’s not like Harvick can lean on his SHR teammates for some magical answer. The only other veteran is Almirola, who has been fast at times but had a crash after being turned at Daytona, spun at the Daytona road course, had contact in an accident with Ryan Blaney at Homestead and then knocked a valve stem off a tire, causing it to go flat and resulting in a crash and last-place finish at Vegas.
"A lot of it has been bad luck and circumstances, but there’s also been mistakes on my part as well, so we just have to clean everything up," Almirola said. "We’ve got to have better cars.
"The driver has to do his job and not make mistakes, and we’ve got to have luck turn and start going our way instead of against us."
Because previous race finish is 50% of the formula used for starting position and points standing is 35% of the formula, Almirola has found himself in a hole at the start of nearly every race. He will start 16th on Sunday at Atlanta, tied for his best starting position since the Daytona 500.
"You have a bad starting spot, you have a bad pit selection," Almirola said. "A bad pit selection usually means that you’re going to be pitting around other cars that are competitive and on the lead lap, so you’re constantly going to be battling with them getting in and out of your pit box.
"It just makes everything more difficult and harder to dig out of these holes, so it is a challenge with starting in the back and not scoring stage points usually in the first stage."
Starting poorly and having a poor pit stall can be overcome – if the car is strong. A strong car also gives a driver options when it comes to strategy.
Almirola pretty much dismissed trying to roll the dice for wins.
"If a handful of cars get on that strategy that could be the race-winning strategy, you’ve got to have a faster car than all those other guys to be the race-winning car on that strategy," Almirola said.
Like Almirola, Briscoe can see lap times that are encouraging. The results for the rookie? Not so much.
"I know we’re capable of being up front," Briscoe said. "Being able to race around some of these drivers that I’ve never raced against before and that I grew up watching win Cup races ... that gives me confidence and is so encouraging, even when we’re having one of those days.
"The Cup deal is tough. It’s extremely hard, but it’s doable."
It’s doable, but gains in performance don’t often come as quickly as a driver would want. Often it is a series of trial and error, which takes longer to capitalize on in an era of no practice.
With 21 races remaining before the playoffs, there’s a long season ahead and a lot of racing to unfold. The gains are possible. But anyone expecting Harvick to go out and dominate at Atlanta as he did a year ago (he led 151 of the 325 laps) might want to temper expectations.
Harvick, Childers and their crew are a championship team. But even champions need time to regroup. Just ask Kyle Busch.
Thinking out loud
NASCAR's decision to use dogs to check crew members when they enter the garage as a way to "test" for COVID-19 certainly seems like a novel idea – and a worthy one.
NASCAR hasn’t been testing, and though it has not had an outbreak of participants being seriously sick, there has always been the question of how many people in the garage could have the virus.
While testing would give more peace of mind, using the dogs is a good step and one NASCAR potentially could use to check fans in order to allow increased access. NASCAR does administer tests if there is question as to whether someone has COVID, so it would make sense if any detection from a dog would be followed by a test.
There doesn’t seem to be a downside here, and it’s certainly better than a temperature check. Last week at Phoenix, temperatures were in the 40s when the garage opened, leaving many to question the accuracy of the forehead thermometers.
They said it
"I’m a dog lover, so I don’t have any problem with dogs doing it." – Erik Jones on NASCAR’s use of dogs to determine if crew members have COVID-19
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!