When the 2022 season began, the Round of 12 without former champions Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch would have been unfathomable.
The two former champions lead the tour among current drivers with 60 wins each. When the “Playoff” system was introduced in 2014, Harvick won the title. He advanced to the Championship 4 Round five of the first six seasons and finished fifth the last two years. Busch leads the tour with two Cup titles.
With Busch and Harvick eliminated from the Playoffs, the average age of the remaining 12 drivers has plummeted to 29.5. Their absence almost feels like the end of an era.
Busch battled his way into the Championship 4 Round five years straight from 2015 when he won his first championship to his second title in 2019. As Busch said during his press conference last week, when he announced his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing after 15 seasons, 2019 is when the fun ended. The following year, Busch finished eighth in the standings after winning one race. He and long-time crew chief Adam Stevens parted ways. The spark between Busch and his current crew chief Ben Beshore has never materialized.
In the 12 years leading up to this season, Harvick finished in the top three in points eight times. He’s been a part of NASCAR’s postseason all but two years since the point system changed dramatically in 2004. Yet following three DNFs leading into Saturday night’s contest at Bristol Motor Speedway—including a fiery 33rd-place finish at Darlington followed by an early exit at Kansas after crashing while running sixth.
Realistically, Harvick was in a must-win situation entering Bristol.
Until his final pit stop, when the left front wheel rolled off of the No. 4 Ford as Harvick departed the box, he had a shot. Although he salvaged a top 10 result—his third-straight at Bristol and the 22nd of his career—it was too little, too late.
“They’ve done a good job, just bad timing,” Harvick said of his pit crew. “It just kind of goes with the whole year. Nothing has gone right, really. The wheels literally fell off tonight.”
Unlike Busch, Harvick has benefitted from having one—not three—crew chiefs since 2014. Rodney Childers has been the constant for Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. And when his driver suffers, so does Childers. Saturday night was no exception.
“We had a really good car all weekend and it just didn't work out,” Childers said. “That's the last thing I thought would happen on the last stop. Those guys have been solid. We've had incredible stops this whole second half of the year. We have beat so many people off of pit road in the second half of the year. It's crazy.
“So, you just don't think that that's going to happen, but you know, as we've seen all year, no matter what the team, it's going to happen at some point. There's nothing you can do about it. Kevin did a good job. Tim (Fedewa, spotter), he did a good job and we kept it clean the whole race. We had ourselves in position to come down pit road and we just didn't make it happen. But overall, it is disappointing.”
Harvick finished half of the races this season in the top 10. Although he was slow to add his name to the list of 2022 winners, once the No. 4 team broke through to victory lane at Michigan, Harvick returned to the winner’s circle the following week at Richmond. After climbing to eighth in the standings, the tide turned at Daytona when Harvick was collected in a 13-car pile-up. At Darlington, Harvick became the fifth Ford driver to have his Mustang burst into flames. His 36th-place result sent the Stewart-Haas flagship squad spiraling to 16th in points where he has remained ever since.
If Harvick was vocal before the fire, his advocacy for the improvement of the cars has escalated since. Childers echoes his driver’s sentiments.
“I felt like the deal at Kansas was kind of a bonehead move from Ross’ (Chastain) part and his spotter’s part,” Childers said. “As I listened to their communication at Kansas, it was really the spotter’s fault more than it was Ross. We got wiped out there and then we burnt to the ground at Darlington.
“There's a lot that needs to be worked on with these cars and things that need to be better. It's going to take the teams to get in there and make it happen. Hopefully, they (NASCAR) are open for that. But we have got a lot of races that we can still win before the end of the year.
“Hopefully, he still wants to do it after this.”