Although Rodney Childers and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing continues to push for improvement, he also trying to keep expectations realistic about whether those gains can be found this season.
“My honest answer is it kind of is what it is at this point,” said Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 SHR Ford. “You don’t have many races left before the playoffs. We’ll probably go to the wind tunnel two more times before the playoffs start, maybe three times, so from a car side, we’re not really going to make the cars much better than where they’re at this weekend at Atlanta.
“From an engine side, those guys have been locked up all year long. They had to submit all their parts going into this year, and they can’t change all the things that we’ve been able to change in years past to be able to find more horsepower either. So when you can’t find more horsepower, and you can’t find more downforce, it puts you in a tight box. Those are the things that I think all of us are sitting here thinking and talking about. You’re just going to have to race differently and not make mistakes and be good on pit road and do those things, and hopefully, you can make it through the next round, but it’s going to be tough.”
It has been a tough season for Stewart-Haas. All four drivers are winless, while three of the four sit 23rd or worse in the point standings. Rookie Chase Briscoe (23rd), Aric Almirola (27th) and Cole Custer (28th) have combined for six top-10 finishes through 20 races.
Childers and his driver Harvick are on an island by themselves. Harvick is ninth in the point standings with an average finish of 8.6. That’s a long way off the dominance of Hendrick Motorsports or even the consistent success of Joe Gibbs Racing.
After being the ones who were whipping the field a year ago, Childers and Harvick are fighting from behind. Childers said if you look back to last fall, that’s when the team began to lose its stride while others like Hendrick came on strong.
“We’ve just kind of been off a little bit all year long, no matter if it’s been a road course or a 550 [horsepower] race or a 750 race,” said Childers. “It’s definitely been tough. Everybody has been working really hard trying to get better. As you know, too, it’s tough to start reeling all that back in.
“You head down one direction, and you’ve got to try to just keep after it and hopefully, keep getting better every week. We’ve made some gains, but we just haven’t been knocking it out of the park as far as catching up, so we just have to keep working and hopefully get better.”
Childers did clarify that his remark earlier this year about being down 70 counts of downforce compared to what the No. 4 team had last year. Everybody lost downforce, Childers said, when NASCAR tweaked some of the rules and started to inspect the cars differently.
“I think some lost 30 counts, some lost 45 counts, and some lost 70 counts,” he said. “And I think the 70 counts was Stewart-Haas, so that part sucks, but overall, it is what it is.”
Even worse, Childers thinks they’ve lost more downforce since the start of the year. It’s part of the inspection game as teams find something that adds seven or eight counts one week, but then NASCAR comes back with a memo of how they will check an area differently the next.
“We think maybe some of the direction that we were going the first half of the year was the wrong direction, and now we’re going back the other direction, and I felt like we had a lot better cars at Nashville and at Pocono,” Childers said. “I thought we had a decent car there, and track position was everything, but once we got up there, we had a really good car, and hopefully, we’ll see this weekend what we have at Atlanta.”
Atlanta is one of Harvick’s best tracks and since being paired with Childers, even more so. Harvick has two wins in the last five races there and three at the track overall. In a car built by Childers for Atlanta, Harvick’s led 1,111 laps in eight races.
“Atlanta is one of those places we’ve been really good at,” Childers said, looking at this weekend’s Quaker State 400. “I think if you took the downforce back off of them and gave the horsepower back, we’d be even better. But, on the other side of that, the 550 stuff, we’ve still been OK. In 2019 we led laps and probably had the best car on the long runs and didn’t capitalize at the end of it. In 2020, we weren’t great at the beginning, kept adjusting on it, and got really good at the end.
“This year at Atlanta (in March), I think we just kind of missed it a little bit. We were further off on our cars early in the year than what we thought, and just a lot of little things that I probably don’t need to get into but, overall, I think our car this weekend should be a little bit better. I’m not going to say that we can just blow the doors off everybody, but hopefully we can run with them and have a shot.”