RACING

INSIGHT: Childers on SHR’s battle to tame the next generation

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Rodney Childers has made a career out of taking the many thoughts and ideas that raced through his head and turning them into fast Stewart-Haas Racing race cars.

Those familiar with Childers know that he’s a car guy, from building cars to hanging bodies and trying to figure out how to make his car’s quarter panel look better than the neighbor’s. Before Next Gen came along, Childers lived to try to improve the fenders or the aero under the car to his advantage. You name the detail, and Childers was all over it.

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“That’s what kept my brain working all the time,” Childers told RACER. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and think of an idea and write it down.”

Childers is always detail oriented. And Kevin Harvick’s #4 team still builds fast cars, but it hasn’t been without a mental adjustment for the crew chief. Next Gen was as big an adjustment for a veteran like Childers as it was for anyone else in the industry.

“These things (mentioned above) just aren’t there anymore and it’s kind of hard to keep an open mind at the rate it’s been disappearing over the last 20 years,” says Childers. “Right now it’s about making sure you can fit in properly and maximize your movement, and honestly get through the tech. It seems like we’re working harder to get through the tech than we do. actually doing while driving our cars.

“That part that I personally struggle with. I think a lot of people do it in the garage, and we all deal with it, and we go to work and we keep our mouths shut and do our jobs and do what we can do. But on the other hand, we definitely miss building the cars and just having a contribution. Right now, you go months at a time, and no one even asks your opinion on anything. This part, personally, that I struggle with.

“But overall, it’s still racing. I hope that getting back to winning ways will certainly make the enthusiasm much stronger throughout the team and everyone will be motivated ahead of the playoffs.

Childers and Harvick haven’t won since September 2020 at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was a nine-win season in which they traded blows with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Chris Gabehart and Denny Hamlin, both looking like championship favorites. Neither won the title, and Childers and Harvick failed to even qualify for the championship chase.

What seemed like a slump last year (Harvick’s numbers fell in every statistical category from 20) has continued. As Childers and company learn about the new car, Harvick has led 13 laps in 19 races with four top-five finishes. But that’s not as bad as it sounds as Childers and Harvick battled for consistency, knocking out finishes to sit 11th in the standings with just three fewer top-10 finishes than Chase Elliott, who has three. wins and leads the points standings.

While speed and balance on the No. 4 was a big issue for the team early on, Childers says the last 10 weeks have been a step in the right direction. Harvick was much happier with the balance of the car and the team had no trouble getting through the weekend.

The previous generation of Cup cars played to the strengths of Harvick and Childers, but the arrival of Next Gen forces a rethink. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Pictures

“He talks about how the car is faster than him, and he just has to figure out how to drive it,” says Childers. “These things are just part of it all together. As a team we have to figure out how to make him more confident and comfortable. We just try to do our normal business every week. We try to keep improving our setups, improving our pit calls and improving pit stops. All those things you never stop working on. If we can keep doing that on the course we’re on, I think we can definitely win a race in these next five or six races and hopefully get into position.

Poor qualifying efforts didn’t help. Next Gen doesn’t do things the same way as its predecessor and Harvick’s driving style was well suited to this 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 offload and miss it badly enough, you almost wish you could start at the back and change what you thought you had to change and start again,” says Childers. “There are certain weekends where you can’t change anything, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Childers describes the No. 4 team’s cars as “decent”. Stewart-Haas went off the rails as a company, going down a rabbit hole from what they thought would improve the cars but failed to do so, and all four teams suffered.

“Since then we have been back on track and all of our cars are performing better,” says Childers. “We need to keep focusing on what works at each track and have a good backlog of things that can make us better. Hopefully some of these places where we go back and where we’ve raced before, we can do big gains and be more competitive.

All of the mental notes that Childers compiled after years of working on the old car no longer apply. Next Gen is “completely different,” and what works on one track that should work on the next sometimes doesn’t. This has discouraged Childers as he seeks to tweak various packages on Harvick’s Ford.

“It’s just a lot of little things, and trying to figure that out from week to week will be key going forward,” he says.

This is a crucial moment. While Harvick is 11th overall, their playoff seeding isn’t quite 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 cut line. It’s an unfamiliar place for Childers and company, and in a year he’s still trying to master the most important variable – the car – in combat.

“We just saw it because we have to win,” Childers said. “We tried to do pretty well from a points point of view, but we still have to be able to capitalize on a race and win a race, and do the things that we need to do. I don’t think any d “Among us wouldn’t have thought there would be 16 potential playoff winners. Maybe there won’t be, but overall we’re driving a lot of good cars.

“To be (19) points behind car 20 [Christopher Bell] is not necessarily great. I think they’re a good racing team and a good driver and certainly it’s going to be tough to beat them week after week. For us, we just look at these next races and try to go out there and win and be competitive and hopefully we can do that.

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