Author: Kenny Bruce
Date: Feb. 1, 2017
AVONDALE, Ariz. – These are busy days for NASCAR teams, with the start of the 2017 season just weeks away.
But nowhere is it busier than Stewart-Haas Racing, where the four-team Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series organization is undergoing the move from fielding Chevrolet to Ford entries.
SHR fields teams for drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and team newcomer Clint Bowyer. The organization, located in Kannapolis, North Carolina, will also field a NASCAR XFINITY Series program for the first time this season.
"It's been a huge change," said Rodney Childers, crew chief Harvick's No. 4 Ford. "Normally in the offseason you can take some cars, put new doors on them, put new quarter panels on them or a new nose and move on. You put the same truck arms, the same housing, the same lower control arms back under it.
"Now it's down to bare frames; cut the clips off, making them where the Ford engine will fit. And you have to wait on NASCAR to give you certification dates to go get your (chassis) certified. Most organizations only get one or two a week; when you've got 75 race cars sitting there waiting to get certified, that's taken a long time."
Before the switch, SHR teams purchased chassis and other pieces from Hendrick Motorsports. Now, those must be crafted in-house. "The machine shop is just turned upside down," Childers said. "Not only are you learning to build your own cars and your own suspensions and that type of stuff but you're trying to figure out the rules too, and how you need to build them.
"I'll be honest, I don't think we're where we need to be. We had so much wind tunnel time in the Chevrolet bodies. We knew every little detail of every little corner, every crease. Now it's starting over and will take a while to get that part figured that out and get the downforce back to where it needs to be."
Harvick has won 12 times since he and Childers joined SHR prior to the 2014 season. He's made it to NASCAR’s Championship 4 two of those three years and won the title in 2014.
He said he relishes the opportunity afforded by a new manufacturer and a new race format. His confidence, he said, is no less because of the issues his team faces.
"The thing that keeps me motivated about our sport are things that you can reach out and grab and motivate yourself with," Harvick said during a break in testing Tuesday at Phoenix Raceway. "The thought and the process that goes into a new format and thinking about how it's going to play out.
"Having a new manufacturer is probably the thing for me that's the most exciting because there will be a lot of problems to solve, a lot of things that are going to be different. Working through those things with my team and organization is something I thrive on. I love the challenges that are presented."
No different than '14, he said, when Harvick was part of a new team at SHR. Or last year when the group was labeled a "lame duck operation" because of the impending switch to Ford. Or the challenges faced when co-owner/driver Tony Stewart was sidelined.
The 2017 season is another season of opportunity. "Plenty to reach out and grab," he said, "and keep yourself and your team motivated."
A new points system that yields race bonus points at the end of individual stages and those that carry over into the playoffs means "you have to be greedy on a week-to-week basis in order to get those points because they'll matter at the end," he said.
"I think there's a lot to motivate yourself with this year and I love those challenges."
Meanwhile back under the hood, Childers has taken a look at the format changes, but says his team won't alter its approach.
"You try to go and be fast, lead the most laps, that part hasn't changed," he said.
A bigger concern is the loss of practice time – most race weekends will now include only one session instead of two the day before the race.
Friday practices aren't helpful, Childers said, because the track is green and time is limited with teams switching from qualifying trim to race trim.
"You don't have time to make things better," Childers said. "You've got one 50-minute practice on Saturday; whoever is fastest in that practice is going to kill everybody because you just don’t have time to do anything.
Without the changes, he said, it's likely that the No. 4 team would have been "really, really good" in '17.
With the transformation, success might come a bit slower. But most remain convinced it will come. Including Childers.
"I'm not saying we can't do that," he said, "but it's going to take some time, I think."
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