Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Harvick’s Hard Bargain, Busch’s Bad Moment & Tricks of the Trade

The team and crew chief merry-go-round at RCR continues, with Shane Wilson out as Kevin Harvick’s head wrench starting this Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Gil Martin will return to the role he held last year as Harvick’s signal caller, before being reassigned as the Competition Director for their Nationwide programs. Harvick currently sits eighth in the standings with no wins, just 44 points ahead of 11th place with three races remaining. A bad finish at Bristol could put him in the precarious position of missing the Chase, with 10th-place Denny Hamlin and 11th-place Kasey Kahne both having victories. It also highlights the inability for RCR to put a team together for Harvick that either he or the crew chief can cope with.

In 2009, RCR swapped the teams and crew chief of Harvick’s then-pit boss Todd Berrier with the Gil Martin-led team of Casey Mears. They did so despite having won two races earlier that season with Berrier, seemingly enjoying good chemistry with Harvick on a team that made the Chase.

Then, in October of 2010 following the fall Martinsville race, Childress swapped the pit crews of Clint Bowyer and Harvick mid-Chase, reacting after some pit road foul-ups had resurfaced. Harvick was just 62 points out at that stage, under the old points system that awarded a maximum of 195 points for winning. Bowyer had won the opening race of the playoffs that year at Loudon but was fined 150 points for a controversial post-race measurement that effectively ended his chances before they began.

So why is Kevin Harvick virtually impossible to keep a team together with? Could it be his ultra-critical comments and complete lack of leadership over the radio? While Harvick did win four races last year and was the points leader for the regular season and first Chase race, he did go through a stretch from 2007-2010 where, if not for green-white-checkered restrictor-plate wreckfests, he’d have one non-plate track victory.

Four years with one legit non video-game finish win? Please, again, show me your primadonna credentials.

Harvick also leads the series in getting choke-slammed onto hoods (Carl Edwards in 2008) and was rumored to be virtually out the door after burning a number of bridges at RCR throughout the years in 2009. Harvick ended up remaining, merging his KHI Nationwide team with RCR this season to become even more dependent on the No. 29 ride.

Weirdly enough, while the RCR Nationwide teams of Elliott Sadler and Childress’s grandson Austin Dillon have flourished in the new environment, the Cup program has struggled mightily. Part of the problem appears to follow the departure of Competition Director Scott Miller, the man who now heads up Michael Waltrip Racing – one of the most consistent and competitive operations in 2012.

I feel sorry for Martin in a way. He had a good gig going working with the Nationwide teams who are on the verge of a championship and Rookie of the Year honors with Dillon. Instead, he gets to endure the abuse and berating of who might be the most miserable and unsupportive driver in all of NASCAR. Just because there is a tiny No. 3 on the driver’s door doesn’t mean you have the No. 3’s pull there, Captain Combover.

Brad Keselowski made allusions to the Hendrick Motorsports cars running trick rear ends as the reason for their speed and dominance lately at intermediate-sized tracks following this past Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Jimmie Johnson was leading handily with seven laps remaining before his engine promptly laid down and exploded with five laps left. Kahne, who was second, rebounded after a lap 64 accident that saw him pile into Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya, then spin down through the infield grass.

Three of the last four downforce wins have been HMS cars, with dominating performances from Kahne at Kansas and Johnson’s outside lane pass on Keselowski to win the Brickyard 400.

“There’s parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that makes the cars more competitive,” Keselowski said after the race. “Some guys have it, some don’t. There’s a question as to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don’t want to be the guys that get the big penalty.”

It’s usually about this time of year that teams start rolling out the new pieces and evaluating what will work come Chase time, and the No. 48 team is no exception. It was October of last year where Chad Knaus instructed Johnson to crack up the back of the car had he won with, while several years ago at Dover Dale Earnhardt Jr. remarked over the radio that the No. 48 looked like a monster truck from behind, courtesy of some trick shocks that were quickly made illegal once NASCAR inspected them.

I can see where Keselowski would be leery of bending the rules and having something turn up during inspection. After all, it was at Loudon last year when the No. 22 of Kurt Busch was late getting through tech and not on the grid until the engines fired. That triggered a caught-on-camera outburst to ESPN reporter Jamie Little, as well as an observed meltdown during driver introductions that many teams warned their drivers about prior to the green flag flying. Another blow up with Dr. Jerry Punch that was a YouTube sensation following the season finale at Homestead brought about Busch’s dismissal from Penske Racing.

Probably best to play it on the safe side, and check with NASCAR first to avoid any potential ugly on-air incidents or 150-point/car-confiscating fines.

Should the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team and Kyle Busch miss the Chase this season, they can likely look at Michigan as the reason why. Busch skipped Saturday’s Happy Hour to fly to Montreal to drive his No. 54 Monster Energy entry in the Nationwide race. The choice was described as a “business decision,” with Busch needing to honor a sponsor commitment for his Kyle Busch Motorsports team. Once there, Busch drove to a lackluster 13th-place finish, disappointing considering he was the defending race champion. Now, he’ll desperately needing a victory to secure a wild-card spot in the Chase in three weeks.

After the race at MIS Sunday, crew chief Dave Rogers took the blame, saying he put the wrong shock package under the No. 18.

Perhaps if Busch was there to drive the car in final practice, they would have discovered this and put the right shock package under it. After all, Busch is one of the few drivers who is adept at chassis tuning and providing accurate mechanical input to the team. Besides, hasn’t Busch proved enough in Nationwide by winning the most races in series history? Hasn’t it been the No. 18 team’s failure to have a complete, solid, championship-contending Chase that has always drawn his ire and negative comments?

I understand he’s running his own operation and sometimes you have to do what the sponsor requests… but come on, a Nationwide race in Quebec? Is Monster the official energy drink of secession or something? Like you couldn’t get Boris Said or another road ace to man the controls for that weekend. I’m sure Rusty Wallace still has some trail-braking chops left in him and would have gladly squeezed through the window hole.

Perhaps when committing to races for the year with Monster he was looking at the races on the schedule and was figuring which ones he could conceivably miss. If not for the last-lap oil incident at Watkins Glen – or the three races in a row with failures of TRD-supplied engines (which were brought in lieu of the JGR engine program for increased reliability) – Busch would not be in the position that he’s in now. Whatever the case, if you’re a Cup driver, you’re a Cup driver, and that should be your main focus.

Besides, after getting benched by M&M’s for a race last year following the Truck Series wreck at Texas, I would be more concerned with their status than running the Nationwide car north of the border.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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