AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Rodney Childers thought he was going to throw up.
The crew chief of Stewart-Haas Racing's new No. 4 team was standing atop his hauler on a cold December day at Charlotte Motor Speedway, preparing for Kevin Harvick to make his first laps in a test that would determine the rules package used for Sprint Cup Series cars. The vehicle Childers had brought was a year old, and he was nervous -- they were either going to be very good or very bad, without much in between.
Two laps in, Harvick busted off a lap a tenth of a second faster than anyone had anticipated, and suddenly the nausea abated. Childers knew on which side of the scale he stood.
"I was like, 'Holy cow!' For me, it's been adrenaline and confidence that we can do this, that we will," Childers said Sunday, after Harvick led 224 laps in a dominant performance at Phoenix International Raceway. "We really just feed off of that every day. Working 17, 18 hours on some days, I go home, I don't even feel tired. The adrenaline will wear off at some point, but hopefully we can keep it going."
That day in Charlotte, every other team in attendance took note of the No. 4 car. They had hit on something, and everyone knew it, and all eyes were on Harvick before his transporter even dropped the liftgate in Phoenix for the first unrestricted event of the year.
The first-year SHR driver did nothing to dissuade that by leading both practice sessions on Saturday. He then destroyed the field in a performance that wasn't as close as a spate of late cautions might have made it look.
"Those guys were two-tenths (of a second) faster than anybody all weekend in practice. They were just phenomenal," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who followed his Daytona 500 victory with a runner-up performance in Phoenix.
Again and again the field was bunched in a late restart, and again and again Harvick managed to pull away.
In terms of complete supremacy, it was an effort on par with Jimmie Johnson's untouchable victory last fall at Texas -- which came in the heat of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, when all the contenders were rolling out their best stuff. This was Phoenix, two races into the season.
"They beat everybody before they came to the track today. It's a great combination. They were prepared for the weekend. Rodney Childers to me is like a rubber-stamp, carbon copy of Paul Wolfe," said third-place Brad Keselowski, referring to his own crew chief. "? It was just a matter of time before he got the great combination he excelled with. They were really prepared. We saw it all the way through testing, that they were dominant. They showed it when they came to the actual race track to race. I would look for big things out of that team. They looked a lot like the 20 car (of Matt Kenseth) did last year at this time. They have that honeymoon syndrome going on, and are taking full advantage of it."
In his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth won two of the season's first eight races and was a contender for the championship all the way down to the final weekend. And yet, that was an established team the driver effectively slid into, while over at an expanded and revamped SHR, everybody is still trying to learn everyone else's names. Sunday evening, Childers was asked if Phoenix marked the first trip for any of his crewmen to Victory Lane -- and he had no idea.
"We've all been working so hard," he said. "We haven't really sat down and had conversations like that."
No, they've been much too busy building race cars capable of leaving half the field a lap down. It's all the more impressive given that we hear crew chiefs talk all the time about how much tighter their technical box has become, and how these later-generation Sprint Cup cars leave them less and less room in which to work their gray-area magic. The elimination of a minimum ride height for 2014 certainly allows for an added variable, but even so -- unless it's built by Chad Knaus, it's tough to find cars that appear so solidly ahead of everyone else.
"With the rules changing tremendously, all the stuff going on, it's really, really hard to understand right now for a lot of people. It's going to take some time for outsiders to understand it," Childers said. "? We've just built fast race cars. We've been fortunate everywhere we've been. Everybody else is really, really good in this garage. It's hard to stay on top, and really hard to keep your cars in a competitive mode. So we'll just have to keep working hard, and hopefully keep that advantage."
So, what's going on with the No. 4 program? How can Harvick and Childers seem so ahead of the game even on a such a mixed day for their own organization -- when co-owner Tony Stewart finishes a pedestrian 16th, when teammate Kurt Busch has a promising day go up in smoke due to a blown engine, and when teammate Danica Patrick spins twice and sounds despondent over her radio?
Some of that is likely due to Childers, a detail-oriented crew chief who despite his affability has a rather uncompromising way of doing things. Through two races and three tests, he hasn't once asked Harvick how he wants his car set up. It was Childers, along with fellow Michael Waltrip Racing expatriate Chad Johnston, who set the standard for how cars needed to be set up at SHR once he arrived at his new address. It was Childers who managed to win a race and keep the No. 55 car competitive despite a rotating cast of drivers at his old team, leaving everyone to wonder what he might be able to accomplish with an unquestioned ace like Harvick at his current one.
And, thanks to building the No. 4 program from the ground up, he's had the opportunity to shape everything just like he wants it, right down to the clean look of the cars.
When SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli called him to lament that Childers would have to start from scratch, the crew chief was unable to hide his satisfaction.
"I said, 'That's perfect.' We can do it all the way I want to do it. We can work hard at it and make it happen," he said. "Just appreciate (co-owner) Gene (Haas) and everybody there. I haven't been told 'no' to anything yet. Maybe that will end after a few more bills come in, or whatever, but it's been a lot of fun. It's been rewarding to see all the guys work so hard and build nice race cars."
Here's the scary part -- they're just getting started. It's a long season, and undoubtedly other teams will catch up to what the No. 4 team is doing, or maybe even discover their own tricks and nose ahead. Still, memories of that Charlotte test loom large throughout the garage area. What's going to happen next weekend at Las Vegas, which like Charlotte is a 1.5-mile track? What's going to happen once the guys on the No. 4 team actually get to know one another?
"All in all, Gene has given us every resource that you can imagine. Tony has been just very supportive of whatever we wanted to do. Rodney has put together a group of guys that believes in what we're doing," Harvick said. "? I think as you go through time, the sky's the limit for this team, because everybody is still trying to learn each other's names, let alone what's going on with the race car."
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