Why are Harvick and Hamlin so much better than their teammates?

Denny Hamlin(11) and Kevin Harvick(4) leading the field to green at Homestead(Photo: Getty Images)

There can be little doubt that two drivers on the NASCAR Cup Series have been ahead of everyone else in 2020. And the dominance of those two has been particularly evident since returning from the layoff brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have each won four races so far this season, including the most recent three events on the Cup Series schedule and four of the last five. And since the sport’s return to action, those drivers have captured the checkered flag seven times out of the twelve races held.

The duo have led a total of 1,095 laps so far this season.

With Harvick competing on behalf of Stewart-Haas Racing and Hamlin wheeling machines prepared by Joe Gibbs Racing it might seem easy to surmise that those two organizations have figured something out that the likes of Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, or Team Penske have not as yet grasped. But that line of reasoning does not tell the whole story.

Nor can it be said that a certain manufacturer has an advantage as Harvick steers a Ford and Hamlin a Toyota.

When a closer look is given to the statistics, it can’t necessarily be theorized that it is simply a matter of two talented drivers who ply their trade for two top organizations.

Harvick has four wins and currently sits first in the NASCAR Cup Series standings. If it were simply a matter of Stewart-Haas Racing being better than every other team, it would stand to reason that his three teammates would have had at least some degree of that same type of success, right? Well, that is not really the case.

Yes, SHR’s Aric Almirola is currently reeling off a string of five consecutive top-5 finishes. Still, though, he has no wins and those are his only top-5s of 2020. So even though he is in the midst of one of his best stretches as a Cup Series driver, his current ranking of ninth in the overall standings shows that he is not yet on par with Harvick.

Clint Bowyer is on the NASCAR Playoffs bubble as he sits 13th in the standings with no wins and two top-5 and five top-10 results to his credit. Cole Custer occupies a disappointing 25th in the standings with a single top-5 and two top-10s to go along with seven finishes outside the top-20.

Hamlin also has four victories to his credit so far this season while ranking fifth in the standings. While his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are fairing better than Harvick’s fellow SHR mates, the No. 11 driver still ranks far ahead of the four.

Martin Truex, Jr. has one win and resides in the seventh spot of the standings, but overall, he has not kept pace with Hamlin throughout the entire season. Further, simple bad luck, such as the pit road incident that ended his day prematurely at Indianapolis, seems to have plagued this driver and his crew more so that the other JGR competitors.

Erik Jones has in fact posted some solid efforts with four top-5s in the books to this point. However, poor finishes(6 outside the top-20) have relegated the driver of the No. 20 to 17th in the standings and outside of the current Playoff picture.

But perhaps the biggest mystery at JGR is that of perennial contender Kyle Busch. The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion has not only failed to win a race this season but has not even scored a Playoff point by winning a stage. While he is tenth in the standings with seven top-5s, this is not the type of season that has come to be expected from this driver who has now scored only one triumph(Homestead’s 2019 championship race) in the past twelve months.

So the question of why Harvick and Hamlin are not only better than the entire field but also their own teammates remains.

The craziness of this season with its makeshift race schedule, no practice, and no qualifying is almost certainly playing a role. Both of these stars have longstanding relationships with the organizations they drive for which no doubt provides some degree of comfort despite the lack of practice. But other drivers within their teams and with other organizations have that as well so length of time within their particular companies cannot be the sole reason for their success.

For more of an explanation regarding each driver’s success in this challenging season, just look atop of their pit boxes.

Kevin Harvick(left) and SHR crew chief Rodney Childers

Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have a proven reputation that has been built over several seasons. A listen in on the team’s in-car radio confirms that Childers’ cool demeanor meshes well with Harvick’s sometimes fiery disposition. And as with any good driver/crew chief relationship, the two men have learned how to understand and operate within each other’s abilities. In other words, they have grown to trust one another.

Since combining in 2014, the pair have accounted for 30 wins, one championship(2014), and a total of five Championship 4 appearances.

Obviously, the decision makers at Stewart-Haas recognize the importance of the Harvick-Childers relationship. Note that during the off-season driver and crew chief shuffle that occurred within that organization which duo was not impacted.

Hamlin and pit boss Chris Gabehart have not been together for as long as Harvick and Childers but they seem to mix every bit as well. The pair have won ten races together and have a Championship 4 Playoff invitation to their credit since joining forces on a full-time basis in 2019.

Denny Hamlin, Chris Gabehart, and Joe Gibbs

Like Harvick and Childers, Hamlin and Gabehart form a hot and cold blending of personalities. But unlike their counterparts, the crew chief in this case tends to be the more fiery of the two. Whatever the case, the match works well in both instances.

That’s not to suggest that there aren’t other gifted crew chiefs in the NASCAR garage area or within SHR and JGR. And, of course, there are numerous other talented wheelmen as well. But as has been shown for years in the this sport, it’s finding the right blend of those two elements that lead to the greatest success.

All of these factors combine to tell the story of why two drivers not only are dominating the entire pack but also within their own organizations. The oddness of this season is helping to demonstrate something that was already known in that talented drivers communicating well and trusting in talented crew chiefs form a lethal team.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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