Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), heads up the road to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for this weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race with Daniel Knost serving as interim crew chief for the suspended Rodney Childers.
Childers is serving a one-race penalty for a rules infraction discovered in post-race inspection at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina, following the March 19 event at Phoenix International Raceway.
Knost is SHR’s director of vehicle dynamics and he previously served as crew chief for SHR drivers Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. He served as Busch’s crew chief for 33 races in 2014, scoring a win, six top-fives and nine top-10s while leading the No. 41 team to a berth in the NASCAR playoffs. His win with Busch came at Martinsville in April 2014.
Knost moved to the No. 10 team with Patrick for the final three races of 2014 and continued with her through 2015. He led the squad to two top-10 finishes in 2015, including one at Martinsville, and guided Patrick to her career-best 24th-place rank in final championship standings.
Knost, Harvick and the No. 4 team will have their work cut out for them at Martinsville. The .526-mile paperclip-shaped racetrack is the shortest in NASCAR’s top series, and its low banking and tight corners provide some of the closest and toughest competition on the schedule.
Due to the tight quarters, a racecar rarely finishes a race at Martinsville without a tire mark on the door or a few dents in the sheet metal.
What makes it even more maddening for competitors is that they can race to the front of the field and stay there throughout the majority of the event, only to get shuffled back on a late-race restart if they wind up in the outside lane.
Harvick and the No. 4 team suffered that very fate at Martinsville in April 2016. He started 19th, raced to the front and led 72 laps before being stuck in the outside lane on consecutive late-race restarts, ultimately finishing 17th.
But the madness of Martinsville can work to a driver’s benefit, as well. Harvick found that out in April 2011 when he started ninth, led just six of 500 laps and beat runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish line by .727 of a second.
Martinsville is one of only three NASCAR Cup Series venues where Harvick has yet to score a top-five finish since joining SHR in 2014 – Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Kentucky Speedway in Sparta are the other two. He may be looking for his first top-five at Martinsville since joining SHR, but he has shown speed and consistency at the Virginia short track with three top-10 finishes and 265 laps led in his six Martinsville starts since the start of 2014.
Harvick is returning from an unusually rough stretch on NASCAR’s West Coast Swing, where he normally has one of his strongest showings of the season. He suffered a cut tire at Las Vegas which led to a 38th-place result. He followed that with a sixth-place finish at Phoenix, where he has dominated in recent years. Last week at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, he sustained damage to the nose of his No. 4 Ford as the race came to the green flag and fell two laps down after a cut tire led to an unscheduled pit stop. Despite all of that, he team rallied to a 13th-place, lead-lap finish.
Harvick is hoping to change his luck this Sunday at Martinsville and score his first top-five there since joining SHR in 2014.
KEVIN HARVICK, Driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Give us an update on the No. 4 Jimmy John’s team heading into Martinsville.
“Well, Rodney Childers is going to get a one-week vacation. Obviously with everything that has happened, basically we got in trouble for a part that was drawn a certain way and didn’t appear that way on the car. The way that NASCAR works now is you submit drawings for pretty much every part on your car. It has to meet certain specifications and that part didn’t meet it, so Rodney’s going to get to go on vacation this week. I know this is probably one of the most painful weeks for him to go on vacation because Martinsville really hasn’t been our best track. He and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, and especially everyone on our No. 4 team, put a lot of effort into trying to go in a different direction. They’re trying to make our Martinsville stuff better than it has been. I know how much time they’ve put into the car. Rodney is a racer and he wants to be at the racetrack every week, but he’s obviously not too thrilled about not being at the racetrack this week. Sometimes that happens. We push things and that’s what I want them to do. I want them to push everything on that car. Sometimes you’re going to get in trouble, but those guys have been the best in the business for the last three years. It’s kind of like growing up as a kid – sometimes you get in trouble and you have to suffer the consequences.”
Martinsville is small and things happen so quickly. Does that make it all the more crucial in terms of who you put atop the pit box?
“The hard part about Martinsville, especially now that I know they are bringing a different right-side tire this week, is that it’s supposed to lay down a lot of rubber and we’ll have some drop-off in speed, hopefully. If the tires drop off enough, you’ll have to change them every time. So we are hoping for a four-tire strategy. The hard part is to manage getting in and out of the box and who is going to talk about that. As we get later in the week, now that we know Rodney is going to be gone for the week, we’re still going to have to work on some of those details of making sure we can get in and out of the pit box and deciding who is going to tell you what on the radio – who is going to speak, who is not going to speak and those things. There will be some hurdles to get over, but we don’t really talk a lot on the radio, anyway. I think Martinsville is one of those places where there’s a lot happening so you don’t want to have too many people on the radio. It’ll be something where we have to work those details out during the week. It’s definitely different. It’s definitely not going to be the same, but you have to manage these situations the best you can. We’ve been here before and had to manage these types of situations, so we have a little experience looking back on how we did this last time and hopefully we can do it better. It’s just like anything else. It’s having a plan when you don’t have a plan. It’s having a play in the playbook for something that hasn’t happened that way before. In this case, we do. We’ve played this play before. We have to do it a little bit differently than we did last time because we have so many more things going on.”
What makes Martinsville Speedway unique? And what makes it challenging?
“I think a lot of us grew up on short tracks and Martinsville is a place where I’ve raced a lot, whether it’s been with the Trucks, or even the Xfinity Series, in which we were fortunate to win the one race we got to run there. It’s a track where I feel like we could have won more races than we probably have in the record books. It’s a place where you enjoy racing and it’s very similar to Talladega by the fact that you just never know when something’s going to happen. You just never know when it can turn and that’s really what short-track racing is all about. And it’s something that happens a lot at Martinsville.”
Where do you want to be at Martinsville to help you avoid trouble on the racetrack?
“I think the best position to be in at any racetrack is in the lead. You want to be in control of the race and try to get yourself in a position to where you can have a good clean restart and have as much clear track, especially at Martinsville just for the fact that there is so much pushing and shoving on the restarts to get to the bottom lane that you want to try to be as far forward as possible.”