An enlarged photo hangs on the wall of No. 4 crew chief Rodney Childers’ upstairs office at Stewart-Haas Racing.
It is inconspicuous in nature — so much so that one might pass it and pay no notice. The image is Kevin Harvick with Childers at ISM Raceway in Phoenix after winning their first race together in 2014. A public relations representative took the photo after victory celebrations.
The meaning, though, is much bigger.
The 2018 season will be the fifth since Harvick and Childers joined forces as driver and crew chief. That race in the desert was one of the initial sparks that ignited the dynamic Harvick-Childers pairing.
“Your first win with somebody is always special, but I remember as soon as we turned that corner out of Victory Lane, he put his arm around me and he said, ‘I told you this was going to happen,’ ” Childers recalled to NASCAR.com on Jan. 25.
“And he was right.”
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The championship-winning pair came together toward the end of the 2013 season. Childers was serving as crew chief for the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, piloted by Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and Waltrip. Harvick was driving the No. 29 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.
After 13 years with RCR, Harvick was looking at the next step in his career with Stewart-Haas Racing – and he wanted Childers to be a part of it.
“Kevin had been after me (for) …. 9-10 months at the time, and I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do,” Childers said. “I felt like everybody at Michael Waltrip Racing was family to me. We had grown that place into something that I thought was pretty competitive at the time compared to where it started when I got there in 2009. And also the relationship I had with the people at Toyota – they treated me great and I didn’t know if I wanted to give all that up.”
Childers visited Harvick’s house on July 11, 2013, to discuss their possible future together. He left with the intention of leaving Michael Waltrip Racing to crew chief the No. 4 in 2014.
Three days later, Vickers won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with Childers atop the pit box.
“I remember sending my wife a message leaving Victory Lane, saying ‘I can’t leave this, I can’t do this to these people,’ ” Childers said.
Ultimately his decision came down to winning races and, more importantly, championships. For Childers, that meant moving to Stewart-Haas Racing with Harvick. The move was delayed, however, as Childers was locked into a contract at Michael Waltrip Racing and unable to officially work for either team for about two months.
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Unofficially, though, he remained hard at work.
“The biggest thing was, I got rested up,” Childers said. “And I spent a lot time with family and I’d sit at home and on Sundays, I would listen to (RaceView) on NASCAR.com and listen to Kevin and his communication with his team. I had a notebook of his last 10 races of the year of everything he said during the race, everything his team said back to him, everything I thought his spotter should have done better, everything I thought his crew chief should have said differently, and by the end of that season I felt comfortable.
“I think letting me stay at home was probably a bad thing for the competition because when I finally got the chance to come here, I was ready to go.”
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Childers began building his race team when he finally arrived at the Stewart-Haas Racing shop.
“Rodney was able to go out and really interview every position on the race team and build a race team that had a lot of the characteristics of his personality,” Harvick said. “I’m a little bit more high-strung than Rodney, so we’re a good balance for each other. But the one thing about the way that our race team is built, it was built from the ground up. It had new cars, new trucks new trailers. Everything about it was built around how we wanted to build (it).”
Right away, the pair just seemed to click. Their personalities differed in many ways, but they held one common trait; both competitive and driven, they wanted to win more than anything.
“It didn’t take long after we got Rodney and seeing Kevin and Rodney together, it was very evident why Kevin was adamant about him,” team owner Tony Stewart said. “The way that they interact with each other, the way that they communicate, the trust that Rodney has in Kevin and Kevin has in Rodney.
“When you find pairings like this, you guard ’em with your life because it’s kind of like Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Fennig and Mark Martin.”
Harvick and Childers hit the track together for the first time at a test at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Dec. 8, 2013. It was there when they began to see the potential for the No. 4 team.
“It was just eye opening for everybody, ‘Holy cow, we’re fast,’ ” Childers recalled. “Like, way fast. We used to look at the 48 that way, it’s like, ‘Man everywhere they went they were just crazy fast.’ We unloaded off the truck and communication went good and the car handled good and I think that day we realized we had something that we could work with, that we could win races with.
The second race on the 2014 schedule was Phoenix. A four-time winner and the track’s most recent winner, Harvick’s prowess in the desert pinned him as a favorite — even with a new team and crew chief.
“When we went to Phoenix, we knew we were going to win, from the time we got there to the time we left,” Childers said. “That thought process never wavered the whole weekend.”
Harvick dominated the race with Childers atop the pit box, leading 224 laps and bringing the No. 4 to victory.
“(It was) a relief,” Harvick said with a chuckle as he recalled the duo’s first win. “Because so many people took such a big chance to …. start the team and sponsors changing organizations … To have that out of the way so early with a victory was a huge relief.”
Harvick and Childers won three more races as the year progressed. On Nov. 16, 2014 — nearly one year after their first test at Charlotte together — Harvick was crowned the 2014 Monster Energy Series champion with a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For Childers and Harvick, their pairing had come full circle; the championship was the reason for their collaboration from the beginning.
“It was all about winning races. It was all about winning the championship and I could see the determination in his eyes,” Childers said. “He was willing to give up everything he had ever done at RCR just to go try to win a championship.
“For somebody like him to basically put all his chips on me and want me to be the guy to win a championship with, that meant the world to me. You always want somebody that has that belief in you.”
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Heading into the pair’s fifth season together, the scene looks different for Harvick and Childers these days. Now veterans at Stewart-Haas Racing, they’ve won 14 races and 15 pole awards, leading 6,658 laps.
But in terms of fundamentals, not much has changed. They dial in with the same focused mindset every weekend, remaining in constant communication even when they’re away from the race track — so much so that Childers says they seem to talk more to each other than to their wives.
That’s what it takes to win.
“I think a lot of those off-the-clock conversations lead to a lot of answers and a lot of questions and a lot of conversations that we probably wouldn’t have,” Harvick said. “But we talk every day – there’s not a day that goes by where there’s not a text or a phone call or something had happened. So, I feel like that communication is what has kept the 4 car competitive.”
Childers noted it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the No. 4 pairing connect.
“When I try to answer that question of why it has worked, I don’t know how to answer it,” he said. “It’s like when you find the perfect somebody and it just happens, you know? It seems like we think alike and we both want to win, both want to work hard, we both want to push each other to be better. I don’t know how to describe it other than that.”
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With all that they’ve accomplished since those early days, Harvick and Childers’ first win at Phoenix seems like a small part in the No. 4 journey.
The image of it hangs in Childers’ office. For the crew chief, that picture is more than a fond memory.
“The biggest reason for the picture is to look up there and remember what kind of relationship we have and remember how much it means, and that I better be working hard,” he said. “You don’t ever want to lose that. It’s cool to have that relationship and be remembered by that every day.”