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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Why Is Kevin Harvick Freaky Fast This Year?

NASCAR hasn’t seen such a dominating performance since 1998 when Jeff Gordon won 13 races in the sport’s premier division. But now, Kevin Harvick is ready to repeat Gordon’s feat, and he’s on track to do exactly that.

Harvick already has five wins (six including this past weekend’s Monster Energy All-Star Race triumph). It’s an accomplishment unlike any other for Harvick, who has never won more than five races in a season.

But to do it in just 12 races is truly remarkable, and it shows just how great everyone is clicking at Stewart-Haas Racing. Can Harvick and SHR keep this up?

While it isn’t totally surprising that Harvick is winning races left and right, there is still some level of shock considering no SHR driver has ever done so well this early in the season.

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Over at Joe Gibbs Racing, the Toyota group is trying to catch up to SHR. Only Kyle Busch has won races this year for JGR, and the other teams appear to be playing catch-up.

Sophomore Erik Jones remains confident in his team’s ability to win, but the results haven’t shown it quite yet. After Jones earned three straight top 10s from Las Vegas to Fontana, his luck has deteriorated and the No. 20 team sits 13th in the standings heading into the Coca-Cola 600. What is Jones experiencing at JGR that is making this year different compared to his freshman season with Furniture Row Racing?

Have a question for next week’s NASCAR Mailbox? Tweet me at @JosephNASCAR or email me at Joseph.Wolkin@gmail.com!

Q: Why is Kevin Harvick so fast to start this season? – Kendra S., Charlotte

A: Tony Gibson. The big man moved behind-the-scenes this year, stepping away from the crew chief role to really have a say in just about everything Stewart-Haas Racing is doing.

Gibson has really become the leader SHR needed him to be, and the organization overall is excelling because of him. Oh, and not to mention the team was already heating up at the end of last season.

Harvick had four straight top fives to end 2017, and he already has nine more to add to that through the first 12 races. The No. 4 team’s pace, led by crew chief Rodney Childers, is second to none this year. He has elevated this team to be the one to beat week-in and week-out, and that might not change throughout the rest of the season.

Last year, SHR struggled to get acclimated with its move to Ford. It was quite the culture shift after working with Chevrolet. Everything was new, and the team was doing more in-house work than ever before.

Now that the entire team has figured things out, Childers and Harvick have become the duo everyone is chasing. The scary part might be that this team is projecting upward, with three straight wins, including the All-Star Race, for the second time this season. The rest of the field is left scratching their chins, trying to figure out what is making Harvick so fast.

It might get only harder to beat Harvick, too. His 1.5-mile track speed is astonishing this year, leading 561 laps in four intermediate races thus far.

Harvick’s experience, combined with Childers’ amazing head on his shoulders, has created something we haven’t seen in two decades. Childers is a man who even got Scott Riggs to perform better. Yeah, remember that guy?

There is something special about this combination, and it’s going to be increasingly harder to stop them moving forward. If Gibson can continue to find ways to make all four SHR cars faster, you know Harvick and Childers will be the first to figure out the perfect setup that will ultimately help them succeed on race day.

Q: How is Erik Jones adjusting to his role with Joe Gibbs Racing? – Bobby A., New York

A: Jones is steadily growing with JGR. It’s a combination of the old No. 77 team from Furniture Row Racing, plus guys he’s already worked with at JGR, and I believe that has been helpful for the sophomore driver. He’s off to a slightly better start than he had last year, with five top 10s through 12 races compared to two in 2017. But more importantly, he led 64 laps at Texas Motor Speedway, a sign that a win may be in the works for this team.

“It’s been up and down,” Jones said. “We’ve just had a few rough weeks and we’re a lot closer now than we were a few weeks ago. I think we’re going to keep up with that direction. The cars are just really challenging now to drive.”

Jones said the changes NASCAR is making to the rules package has been hurting them. They are struggling to keep up with the changes, and you can see that from the sentiment shared by team owner Joe Gibbs in this week’s Beyond the Cockpit.

“With the new rules on the splitter, it took away a lot from some teams,” Jones said. “The way you work through traffic is a lot more challenging, and it’s a lot harder to pass. The cars drive a lot tighter overall. The front-ends are working [well] for most people.”

The No. 20 team is trying to balance the changes, and with a young driver-crew chief combination, things have been tough. But in the midst of the challenge, they have stepped things up.

Jones’ 16.2 average finish is an improvement from last year, and it isn’t far behind from his predecessor’s 14.2. But the good thing is, the No. 20 team has already figured out what they need to fix in order to compete for wins.

“The biggest thing is we’re just getting too free in the front,” he said. “It hasn’t been good for speed at all. We need to figure out how far we can go with freeing up the racecar without losing too much time.”

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