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Friday 5: Stewart-Haas Racing searches for answers at Kansas

Rarely does a race in early May seem so significant, but Sunday’s event at Kansas Speedway is pivotal for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The four-car organization has struggled this season and is on track to have one driver make the playoffs. Three years ago, all four of its drivers were in the final eight of the playoffs.

Crew chief Rodney Childers acknowledged what’s at stake this week in an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“If we can’t go there and run good,” he said of Kansas, “then we’ve definitely got big issues.”

SHR’s challenge has been the lack of balance with its cars. Childers told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio earlier this season that a change in how officials inspect the rear wheel well area “knocked 70 counts of downforce off the car, and when you knock that amount of downforce off, especially when it mainly comes off the rear, it just completely messes up your aero balance.”

That’s slowed the cars.

No SHR car has ranked higher than eighth in green flag speed at the three 1.5-mile races this season. Three Stewart-Haas Racing cars each ranked outside the top 20 in that category at all three races.

“Until you get a car that you can run wide open for at least four or five laps at a 550-horsepower track (such as Kansas), then you don’t have enough downforce,” Childers said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Lord, we haven’t been able to run a single lap wide open.”

The result is that Kevin Harvick, who won a series-high nine races last year — the most victories by a driver in a season since 2008 — is winless this year. He also has not scored any playoff points.

Two years ago, he had two playoff points after the first 10 races of the season and still made it to the championship race. But in that season, he had a 5.3 average finish in the first three races on 1.5-mile tracks. His average finish through the first three races on such tracks this year is 11.7.

“You have to get every single point you can get every single weekend just to make sure you don’t put yourself in a hole that you can’t get out of,” Harvick said in a team release this week. “The one weekend I kick myself in the butt for is Las Vegas because we should’ve finished eighth or ninth there and I wound up knocking both front fenders off (and finishing 20th).

“We’ve all been in this position before. Our season is so long that you really have to focus on making sure you’re in the right spot when you get to the end of race No. 26. We’ve been on both sides of this fence — we’ve been slow starters, we’ve been fast starters, we’ve run good all season — we’ve experienced it all. We definitely have to be in this particular mindset until we 100 percent get it fixed. I think everybody’s doing a great job of just making sure that we’re doing that right now. Getting the most out of each weekend is very important.”

NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - APRIL 11: Cole Custer, driver of the #41 Ford, and Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers Ford, talk on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 11, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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Cole Custer (left) and Chase Briscoe (right) each scored their season-best finish last weekend at Talladega. Custer was 10th; Briscoe 11th. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Teammates Aric Almirola, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe have struggled to do that. They’ve yet to score a top-15 finish in the three races on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

With restarts key at such tracks, the struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing are magnified.

“We’ve got to be more competitive,” Almirola said. “I’ve got to be more on offense and less on defense. I feel like our mile-and-a-half program has been off, and because of that, every restart you’re just playing major defense. It’s hard to play offense because the car’s not driving good — don’t have a lot of speed in the car and it’s a handful — and not as fast as the cars around you.

“So you’re just playing a lot of defense, and when we’ve been at our best, that’s not the case. You fire off on every restart and you’re on offense. You’re picking and choosing lanes and putting your car in places where you need it to go to make passes, not to try and block a run or try and play defense.”

What makes Sunday’s race at Kansas key for Stewart-Haas Racing is that it is the first race on a 1.5-mile track in six weeks and can gauge the progress the team has made. Should Kansas — a playoff track — not provide the performance SHR seeks, the team will have only three more races on 1.5-mile tracks (including the All-Star Race at Texas) before the playoffs.

While NASCAR’s schedule is focused more on road courses this season — five of 11 Cup points races will be contested on such tracks beginning May 23 — the 1.5-mile tracks still matter in the playoffs.

It’s not unreasonable to say that the championship race in Phoenix and the season’s penultimate race at Martinsville (which sets the championship field) are the only playoff races more important than the race at Las Vegas to open the second round.

That round includes Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. The Las Vegas race is critical because of the uncertainty that can happen at both Talladega and the Roval. A bad race at Las Vegas and then getting swept in a crash at Talladega could end a driver’s titles hopes.

Get through those obstacles and the third round opens with races at Texas and Kansas, both 1.5-mile tracks.

“Hopefully, we can just keep striving and working hard and making changes and not be scared of what the consequences are and go out there and start winning some races,” Childers said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week.

With work to do, Harvick said he’s not focused on how others view his organization.

“I respect the fact people outside our team have a job to do, but that doesn’t mean I have to pay attention to it or put any stock into what is said and what is not said,” Harvick said in a team release. “And, honestly, I don’t have time to worry about that stuff.

“It really doesn’t make any difference in the communication I have with my team, because that’s the most important thing right now — to make sure you pick out those details of every single weekend, to make sure you’re part of the process of putting the right pieces back in place.

“A lot of people have a tough time doing that, but I have no problem. It makes some people mad with the way we go about those types of things, but it’s the best thing for the team to be as low key as possible in these types of situations. We keep our heads down and work on fixing our problems, and that’s important.”

2. Matt Kaulig’s vision

When Kaulig Racing debuted in the Xfinity Series in 2016, the team finished 16th in car owner points.

Five years later, nearly half the cars that finished ahead of Matt Kaulig’s team no longer exist. Gone are cars from Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Kaulig’s operation, meanwhile, expanded to three full-time Xfinity teams and will run a full-time Cup team next year.

The growth is unparalleled in the series in that time. That’s how Kaulig does business.

“There’s a quote that I have that I really live by, and I do this in business and even in the business of racing: ‘Either you continue to grow or you begin to die,’” Kaulig told NBC Sports. “That’s up on the wall for everybody to see in the race shop.

“You want to keep getting better, and you want to keep growing. I do not want to be one of those statistics (of teams no longer in the series since 2016).”

The former Akron Zips quarterback built LeafFilter North, Inc., from his home into a business that has 112 locations in the U.S. and Canada and says will do $1.5 billion in sales this year.

He seeks to be as impactful in racing.

“We want to be one of the bigger teams in NASCAR,” Kaulig told NBC Sports. “That is our goal. We do want to dominate. We do want to win races. We look at the other organizations out there like Gibbs, Penske and Hendrick. We want to be like those organizations.

“We’re young. I’m 48 years old. Our president, Chris Rice, is 47 years old. So we’ve got a lot of years left. We’ve got a lot of energy. We want to accomplish a lot of things.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It's What's For Dinner. 300

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 13: Jeb Burton, driver of the #10 Nutrien Ag Solutions Chevrolet, and AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Ellsworth Advisors Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 13, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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AJ Allmendinger (No. 16) and Jeb Burton (No. 10) each has won a race in the Xfinity Series this season for Kaulig Racing. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kaulig’s organization will be the fourth new full-time Cup team since this season, a move influenced by the debut of the Next Gen car in 2022. Trackhouse Racing, 23XI Racing and Live Fast Motorsports each debuted this season. The Next Gen car is intended to reduce costs over time because many of the its parts will come from vendors instead of teams needing to make those items.

The influx of new teams is something NASCAR President Steve Phelps hinted at in September 2020.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” Phelps said then. “Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

While the path to Cup has come relatively quickly, Kaulig also has taken a measured approach. The team will run at least 10 races this season.

Kaz Grala finished sixth in last weekend’s Cup race at Talladega. Allmendinger placed seventh for the team at the Daytona road course in February. Grala was 28th in the season-opening Daytona 500.

“We wanted to do a few things,” Kaulig said. “We wanted to be in the (Cup) garage … They do things different. Inspections are different. It’s, seriously, just learning all of that stuff for 10 or 11 races.”

As the organization moves ahead on its Cup plans, it doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting the team’s Xfinity Series program.

Kaulig Racing has won two of the first eight Xfinity races this season. AJ Allmendinger won at Las Vegas. Jeb Burton won last weekend’s race at Talladega. Justin Haley has six top-10 finishes in the first eight races of the season.

The team celebrated Burton’s win Monday with lunch. It was another sign of how far the organization has come since its debut.

“We used to have top-10 lunches,” Kaulig said. “Then it went to top-five lunches.”

Now, the lunches are for wins.

3. In the spotlight

Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win has raised his profile and has him on pace for his first playoff appearance. The win also got him his first national TV commercial.

With a raised profile come more media sessions and questions. In light of NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying last weekend that the series seeks to have more drivers engage with the public about vaccinations, I asked McDowell how he balances discussing such a topic with any desire to keep his status personal.

“I appreciate the question,” he said. “With so much that’s gone on over the last couple of years, and with social media being somewhat polarizing and this election being polarizing and just all the events with the pandemic and racial injustice and all the things that have gone on over the last two years, it’s very easy to get mixed up in it — and mixed up in it good or bad — however you want to look at it.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 14: Michael McDowell, driver of the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win was the first in his Cup career and the third series win for Front Row Motorsports. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“At the beginning of this year, I sat down with my team, and I sat down with Bob Jenkins, our owner, and we just agreed that we’re a race team. That’s what we do. We race. This is not a political platform for us. This is not for us to have agendas or trying to encourage people to do things how we do it or vice versa.

“We’re a race team. We’re gonna talk about racing. So that’s how I’ve kept it. When it comes to those things, I’m just gonna talk about racing because that’s what I am, a race car driver. In my house and in my family, we have these conversations, and we talk about it, and the thing about it for me is that it shouldn’t be so divisive, and I don’t want to be a part of being divisive. That’s not what I’m about.

“I’m a race car driver, so you’ve got people that are anti this and pro this, and it’s not that I’m trying to avoid the question, I’m just gonna talk about racing because that’s what we do. I feel a lot of times athletes, they feel like they have this platform to have a voice, and there’s too many voices out there. There’s just too many voices. I mean, you guys see it every day. Everybody’s got an opinion.”

McDowell has used his platform to discuss his faith. I asked him how he felt that was different from what he had mentioned.

“For me, who I am is a follower of Christ,” McDowell said. “That’s who I am. I am not a pro-vaccinator. I am not an anti-vaccinator. I’m a follower of Christ. So the reason I use my platform to share that is because that’s who I am. That’s what is important to me.

“Whether you’re vaccinated or not is not important to me currently because I’m not a doctor or a scientist or a biologist. There are a lot of people that are telling you lots of different things, but, for me, sharing my faith is important because that’s who I am. I’m not a doctor or scientist, so that part of it isn’t important to me.”

4. Unique fan interaction

As part of Dr Pepper’s sponsorship of Bubba Wallace this weekend at Kansas Speedway, the company has a program where Wallace will surprise two families in the Kanas City area by delivering lunch.

It is among early examples of drivers and fans socializing in person instead of through Zoom. Such interactions are what teams and the sport have looked forward to reviving. NASCAR will allow a limited number of guests and media who are fully vaccinated into the garage next weekend at Darlington Raceway. It marks the first time since the garage has been open to those beyond teams and competitors since the series resumed last May.

As for the interaction with fans, Wallace said he is looking forward to it.

Bubba Wallace Netflix

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 18: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 Root Insurance Toyota, poses on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/23XI Racing via Getty Images )

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“It means we’re getting over the hump, I would say, from COVID,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “Excited about the activation that Dr Pepper has put together for us to be able and go out and mingle with some fans and share some appreciation. … It is good that we are taking the right steps to make sure we can do this safely with everything that is still going on. I’ve started my first round of vaccinations. It will be good.”

As more fans are permitted to races — Dover International Speedway revealed Thursday that it will be allowed to host up to 20,000 fans for its NASCAR weekend in May — Wallace said the interaction is key.

“We say it’s all about the fans,” Wallace said. “There are so many new fans coming to our sport now. … They’re excited to be there. When they are excited to be there, that makes you want to put on an even better race and just put on a great show for all the fans that are there.”

Wallace enters Kansas 20th in the standings. He’s 33 points behind Chris Buescher, who holds what would be the final playoff spot. Wallace and 23XI Racing seek their first top-10 finish this season.

“Our debrief meetings are really in-depth of how we are going to perform better,” Wallace said. “It’s giving good insight for me. It’s giving good insight for the team. It’s building that data base. Just finished up a good test session on the (Toyota Racing Development) sim (Wednesday).

“You’ve got to treat those like you’re showing up at the track and practicing and that’s how you’re building your notes. We were at Kansas, Darlington and COTA (on the sim Wednesday) and you’re building your notes for when you get there. You have to make those moments count because you don’t have practice (at most tracks).

“So doing as much sim work as you can, watching as much film as you can, study (data), all those things are translating over to our performances and understanding how to look more in-depth at things. It’s only going to propel us further.”

5. 10 for 10?

The last nine races on a 1.5-mile speedway have been won by nine different drivers. Will the streak go to 10 in a row?

Here are the drivers who have won the last nine races at those tracks:

2021 Atlanta — Ryan Blaney

2021 Las Vegas — Kyle Larson

2021 Miami — William Byron

2020 Texas (playoffs) — Kyle Busch

2020 Kansas (playoffs) — Joey Logano

2020 Las Vegas (playoffs) — Kurt Busch

2020 Kansas — Denny Hamlin

2020 Texas — Austin Dillon

2020 Kentucky — Cole Custer

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