Race Weekend Central

Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?

With all the talk surrounding NASCAR’s new Chase, a lot has been focused on Stewart-Haas Racing, one of two organizations with multiple race winners, the only driver with more than one win, and, at least for now, more than one car in the Chase. On the one hand, that should make SHR a title favorite; after all, with two winning teams, they’re a step ahead of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.

On the other hand, well, have you looked at the points? Those two winners fromSHR, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, are sitting 22nd and 26th, respectively, despite their wins. Busch is 41 points ahead of 30th, the cutoff point where a win can be used for a Chase berth. Despite three wins between them, Harvick and Busch have just six combined lead-lap finishes in eight races. In comparison, the top three drivers in points, including winless leader Jeff Gordon, have finished on the lead lap every week. Even Casey Mears, who’s struggled in recent years, has more lead-lap finishes than either Harvick or Busch.

So, despite the “win and in” Chase berths Harvick and Busch are enjoying, are the No. 4 and No. 41 really championship-caliber teams?

Kevin Harvick has won two races this season, but does that make his team championship caliber?
Kevin Harvick has won two races this season, but does that make his team championship caliber?

That’s a tricky question. They both have a win, and most likely a Chase spot, so there’s no need to even think about points. That will all go away withNASCAR’s reset in September, so as long as they’re ready for the Chase, they don’t even have to play catch-up. But, if they’re not getting it done on a consistent basis now, is that a sign that finding that Chase consistency will be, at best, an uphill battle?

Before pinning a team as a contender or pretender, we need to define what championship-caliber really means. That’s going to vary from fan to fan. Every fan wants to believe his or her favorite driver is championship caliber. So what does it take to be in that catetgory? Here’s my take.

1. Driver talent This one is certainly key, and it’s probably the one thing that doesn’t change — either a driver’s got it or not. Not to say one can’t improve over a career, but there are some drivers who will have a long, successful career without ever quite getting to a champion’s level. And that’s perfectly okay.

It’s also possible for a team to have a championship-caliber driver without being there as a team. Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick are certainly championship-caliber drivers. Both have multiple wins and have performed well under pressure. Busch has a title already. It’s hard to argue that either of these drivers lacks the talent to win a Sprint Cup title. But that’s not all it takes.

2. The right team around the driver If the car doesn’t roll off the truck fast enough to compete every weekend, if the pit crew loses positions on stops, if the crew chief can’t make the right call for in-race adjustments, well, then a talented driver isn’t going to beat another talented driver whose team doesn’t make mistakes. Everyone’s going to have a few of them, they’re all going to have a bad day or two…but if the team as a whole is consistently strong, those days are fewer and further between, and they can be overcome. When there’s a piece missing, it’s harder to get past.

3. The best equipment This one’s a given, but equipment separates the top contenders from the others. Harvick is the perfect example; Richard Childress Racing has been a half-step behind Hendrick and SHR in the Chevy camp in recent years, and Harvick was just a bit behind the other contenders as a result.

To a degree, this is one that can change over a season as teams figure out new rules and new packages that work. It’s not going to change to the degree that a team that’s a step behind becomes a contender overnight, but teams do tend to have success in clumps as they figure something out.

Right now, this is the big question mark at SHR. Mechanical failures have hurt Harvick and Busch both this year. There’s no question that they have good cars, but they haven’t been able to keep them as reliable as some teams have.

4. Communication Communication between a driver and crew chief is a big piece of a championship puzzle. If a driver can’t give consistent, accurate feedback to a crew chief, his team will not improve throughout a race as other teams do. If a crew chief can’t take that feedback and make changes that work for that driver, it’s not going to work either.

This is one of the biggest keys to the success of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Johnson is a master of conveying what a race car is doing as well as how that compares to how he ran in the past, and that makes it easier for his team to use that information to help him. It was also one of the reasons why Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Eury, Jr. were not successful as a pair — Earnhardt has the tendency to shut down when things aren’t going right, or to dissolve into unhelpful complaining, and Eury didn’t have the ability to refocus his driver, rather falling into an argument on several occasions. In short, it’s a huge part of a team’s success.

In order to be a legitimate title contender, a team needs all of these pieces, as well as intangibles such as chemistry and even luck. Without any one of them — even lacking just a little bit — a team isn’t title-ready.

But the bottom line, to me, putting all of the above into consideration, is this: a championship-caliber team is one who, without the help of a NASCAR points reset, could contend for a title in any given year. In the Chase era, it can be argued that a team can win a title without being truly championship caliber, and maybe that’s not a good thing.

Right now, as entire units, the Nos. 4 and 41 are simply not championship-caliber teams.

The good news is that can change. It’s entirely possible for a team to start a season a step off the pace in some area and put it all together by the time summer rolls around. It’s just as possible for a team to start off hot and fall apart, throwing away a championship chance. While some pieces are static, like a driver’s talent, other parts can be worked on throughout a season, much the way a car can be improved throughout a race. It’s possible to make up a large points deficit over time, and right now, there’s plenty of time for teams to get back on track.

So while there’s little to indicate that Harvick or Busch has the whole package right now, they have time to come around. If they do, they’ll be legit contenders. If not, it’s likely they won’t be in the conversation at Homestead. And if they are, then they’ve used the system to their advantage. In the Chase era, that’s part of it too.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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