Rodney Childers has made a career of taking the many thoughts and ideas running rampant inside his head and turning them into fast Stewart-Haas Racing race cars.
Those who know Childers well know he’s a car guy, from building cars to hanging bodies and trying to figure out how to make the quarter panel on his car better than the next guy’s. Prior to the arrival of Next Gen, Childers lived for trying to make the fenders better or the aero underneath the car work to his advantage. You name the detail, and Childers was all over it.
“That’s what kept my brain going all the time,” Childers tells RACER. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and think of an idea and write it down.”
Childers is still all about the details. And the No. 4 team for Kevin Harvick is still building fast cars, but it hasn’t been without a mental adjustment for the crew chief. Next Gen has been as big an adjustment for a veteran like Childers as anyone else in the industry.
“Those (aforementioned) things just aren’t there anymore and it’s kind of hard to keep your mind going at the rate that it’s gone for the last 20 years,” Childers says. “Right now, it’s about making sure that you can get set up right and max your travels out, and honestly, just get through tech. It seems like we work harder on getting through tech than what we do actually racing our cars.
“That part I struggle with personally. I think a lot of people do in the garage, and we all just kind of deal with it, and we go to work and kind of keep our mouths shut and do our job and do what we can do. But on the other side, we definitely miss building the cars and just having some input. Right now, you go months at a time, and nobody even asks your input on anything. That part, personally, I struggle with.
“But overall, it’s still racing. Hopefully, getting back into victory lane will definitely make the enthusiasm a lot better throughout the team and get everybody pumped up before the playoffs.”
Childers and Harvick have not won since September 2020 at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was a nine-win season in which they traded punches with Chris Gabehart and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing, both looking like the championship favorites. Neither won the title, and Childers and Harvick failed to even qualify for the championship race.
What appeared to be a slump last year (Harvick’s numbers went down in every statistical category from ’20) has continued. As Childers and company learn the new car, Harvick has led 13 laps through 19 races with four top-five finishes. But it’s not as bad as it may seem as Childers and Harvick have fought for consistency, grinding out finishes to sit 11th in the standings with only three fewer top-10 finishes than Chase Elliott, who has three wins and leads the point standings.
Whereas speed and balance on the No. 4 were a significant issue for the team early on, Childers explains that the last 10 weeks have been a step in the right direction. Harvick has been much happier with the car’s balance, and the team hasn’t struggled to get through the weekend.
“He talks about how the car is faster than him, and he just has to figure out how to drive it,” says Childers. “Those things are just part of all it together. As a team, we have to figure out how to make him feel more confident and comfortable. We’re just trying to do our normal deal every week. We try to keep making our setups better and making our pit calls better, and making the pit stops better. All those things that you never stop working on. If we can continue to do that on the route that we’re on, I think we can definitely win a race over these next five or six races and hopefully, put ourselves in position.”
Bad qualifying efforts haven’t helped. Next Gen doesn’t do things in the same way that its predecessor did and Harvick’s driving style was well adapted to that car. The inability to make big changes to a car on race weekend given the rules is another challenge, and minimal practice/qualifying time also hurts.
“If you unload and miss it pretty bad, you almost wish you can start in the back and change what you thought you needed to change and start over,” Childers says. “There are certain weekends you don’t get to change anything, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Childers describes the No. 4 team’s cars as “decent.” Stewart-Haas got off track as a company, going down a rabbit hole of what they thought would make the cars better but didn’t, and all four teams suffered.
“Since then, we’ve gotten back on the right track, and all of our cars are performing better,” says Childers. “We’ve got to keep honing in on what works at each track and have a good notebook of things that can make us better. Hopefully, some of these places we’re going back to that we’ve already raced at, we can make big gains at and be more competitive.”
All of the mental notes Childers compiled after years of working on the old car no longer apply. Next Gen is “completely different,” and what works at one track that should work at the next sometimes doesn’t. It has thrown Childers off as he looks to fine-tune different packages on Harvick’s Ford.
“It’s just a lot of little things, and trying to figure that out week to week is going to be key going forward,” he says.
It’s a crucial time. While Harvick is 11th in the overall standings, their playoff standing is not as comfortable. With 13 drivers having already won a race and three others higher in points without a win than Harvick, the No. 4 team is below the cutline. It’s an unfamiliar place for Childers and company, and in a year where he’s still trying to get his arms around the most important variable – the car – in the fight.
“We’ve just been looking at it as, we need to win,” Childers says. “We’ve tried to do fairly good from a points standpoint, but we still need to be able to capitalize on a race and to win a race, and do the things that we need to do. I don’t think any of us would have thought there would be potentially 16 winners going into the playoffs. Maybe there won’t, but overall, we’re racing a lot of good cars.
“To be (19) points behind the 20 car [Christopher Bell] is not necessarily great. I think that’s a good race team and a good driver and definitely, it’s going to be tough to beat them week by week by week. For us, we’re just looking at these next few races and trying to go out there and win and be competitive and hopefully, we can do that.”