KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Kevin Harvick’s average starting position of just better than ninth this season is by far the best of his 14-year Sprint Cup Series career. In fact, the driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) has produced five of his 11 career Sprint Cup poles in 2014 – better than 45 percent of his career pole total – and he still has 12 races remaining in the season, starting with Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, to add to that total.
Prior to 2014, Harvick’s best average starting position in a single Sprint Cup Series season came in 2006, when he scored an average starting position of 13.5 for the 36-race season. He also won two Sprint Cup Series poles in 2005, the most in any season prior to his five poles through the first 24 races of this season.
Several factors may have contributed to Harvick’s average starting position of 8.8 this season and his recent string of qualifying success, such as the new knockout group qualifying format introduced at the start of the 2014 Sprint Cup season, or perhaps the new ride-height rules. But, one factor that should not be overlooked is the crew chief calling the shots.
Veteran Sprint Cup crew chief Rodney Childers has experienced a season like this before in his first season with a new driver. Childers and future NASCAR Hall of Fame candidate Mark Martin combined to win four poles in only 24 races in their first season paired together in 2012. The duo also scored two outside-front-row qualifying efforts to go along with their four poles.
Childers claims to see a lot of similarities between his current driver and his former driver in their commitment to qualifying. He believes it is a group effort by both the driver and the team to show each other the confidence and determination it takes to turn a fast lap when it counts to win a pole, which equates to a better starting position and even a better pit stall for when the race starts.
If Harvick and Childers have hopes of scoring their sixth Sprint Cup pole of the season at Atlanta, they have their work cut out for them. Harvick has never won a Sprint Cup Series pole at Atlanta, but he did start in the second position in October 2006. His last top-10 starting position at the 1.54-mile “quad” oval came in October 2009, when he started 10th. While Harvick has not witnessed great qualifying success recently at Atlanta, he has scored top-10 finishes in six of his last seven starts there, including three top-fives.
The Bakersfield, California native clinched his Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship berth with a second-place finish Aug. 3 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. With just two regular-season races remaining before the start of the Chase Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, Harvick knows that regular-season points no longer matter. Winning is the only way to capture additional bonus points for when the Chase field is seeded following Richmond.
Under the new Chase format, the top-15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races earn a spot in the Chase. The 16th position goes to the points leader following the Sept. 6 Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway if that driver does not have a victory. Each win counts for three additional bonus points to help seed the drivers for the first round of the playoffs.
Harvick does have wins at Atlanta in each of NASCAR’s top three touring series. He won the Sprint Cup race on March 11, 2001 in just his third career Sprint Cup start. Harvick led 18 laps and finished 0.006 of a second ahead of runner-up Jeff Gordon – the closest margin of victory since the advent of electronic scoring in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He also has two Nationwide Series wins – September 2009 when he won from the second position and led 131 laps, and August 2013 when he started 20th and led 132 laps. His lone NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Atlanta came in March 2010, when he started fourth and led 100 laps en route to the win.
Harvick is doing double duty this weekend and will get additional seat time behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro for JR Motorsports in Saturday’s Nationwide Series event. Harvick already has two Nationwide Series wins driving for JR Motorsports in 2014 – at Richmond in April, and in June at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.
Harvick will pilot SHR Chassis No. 4-884 Sunday night. If recent history is any indication, he will likely be starting up front again. Chassis No. 4-884 started from the pole position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July and led 12 laps en route to an eighth-place finish for Harvick.
The No. 4 Jimmy John’s team likes to be “Freaky Fast” on qualifying day, but it also knows that those all-important bonus points for the Chase come from finishing first Sunday night.
RODNEY CHILDERS, Crew Chief of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You won four poles with Mark Martin as your driver in 2012. You’ve won five poles with Kevin Harvick this season. Can you compare working with those two drivers as qualifiers?
“With Mark (Martin), even though it was four poles, I think we qualified in the top-five four or five more times, too, so we’d just barely miss it. I think Kasey (Kahne) ended up with four poles and it seemed like every time he was on the pole, we were on the outside front row. It was probably close to being seven or eight poles. I’d say the biggest thing is just seeing the determination in Mark when it comes to qualifying time and his confidence level as he would get into the car. I see that same thing with Kevin. I didn’t know that going into this year, but he’s not any different then what Mark is. I think he has that confidence in us, and we have that confidence in him. I think he feels like he can sit on the pole every week, and we feel that way, too. A lot of the time, when you sit on the pole like we have, it’s pure commitment. Hearing (Kevin’s) voice after his lap at Bristol was all commitment. Yeah, we had a good racecar, but it was really his decision of how fast he was going to go. I think a lot of it is just him wanting to prove that he is a good qualifier, but I think a lot of it is just the confidence in the whole team that we can qualify well every week.”
People have at times said that Kevin Harvick might not be the best qualifier. What would you tell people about Kevin Harvick as a qualifier?
“A lot of people have also said that the reason he qualifies better is because of the way we’ve been doing it this year. You can learn from each session and get better. He’s really good at learning, anyway, but most of the times we’ve sat on the pole, he’s been fastest in the first (practice) session, too. So, to me, I think he is as good as anybody, really. Like I said, I didn’t really know that going into the year, but he can do it just like anybody else can.”
How much time each weekend do you focus on qualifying versus race setup? Is it something you place a priority on?
“I would say you work on your race setup about 85 percent of the time and you work on qualifying 15 percent of the time, because the race is really what matters. But, the qualifying thing has gotten to the point where the pit selection and all of that stuff means so much that you have to focus on that stuff. I think as a team we try to get everything we can out of every part of the car when it comes to qualifying and setups and different things. If you work on your race setup and you get a good race setup, then it’s easier to come up with a qualifying setup. I think, all-in-all, it’s about having a good car no matter if it’s race trim or qualifying trim.”
What makes for a good race setup at a place like Atlanta?
“The biggest thing at a place like Atlanta is keeping the tires on the car as long as you can. It wears the tires out so fast that whoever keeps the tires on the car the longest ends up being the best car. Normally, the guy who has the best-balanced car is the one who keeps the tires on it, too. Kevin is really good at taking care of his tires early in a run and that’s really when you can hurt them the most. I think that type of track plays into his hands a little bit.”
We’ve seen a lot of tire wear at racetracks with a rough surface like Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Are you expecting to see that at all this weekend in Atlanta?
“Judging from what I’ve heard from the people who tested there, it was really, really bad. That said, you have to go into the weekend with an open mind and do whatever you have to do to make sure you don’t have problems. You’ll probably see guys over the course of the weekend who might change rear-end housings or front geometry and keep their cambers down to try and take care of their tires the best they can.”
Do you have a specific memory from Atlanta Motor Speedway that sticks out?
“I’d say probably the biggest thing was in 2009 when I went there with (David) Reutimann and we had a really good car, led some of the race and, it just so happened that we raced Kevin Harvick all night. We would beat him on the short run and he would beat us on the long run. It came down to a little four- or five-lap shootout at the end and I thought we had a shot at it, but we ended up not winning. That was the best I’d ever run there, though. It was a fun night.”
- Charlie Brim
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