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NASCAR Phoenix 2016 recap: Rodney Childers’ decision not to pit set up Kevin Harvick’s win

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How Sunday’s race finished will get the attention, but it was Rodney Childers’ pit strategy that factored heavily in Kevin Harvick prevailing.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It's the kind of decision that earns a crew chief their paycheck while also causing them to reach for the antacids. When a caution comes out with only a handful of laps remaining, a crew chief must be part strategist, mathematician and a gambler unafraid of making the wrong call in deciding whether their driver should pit.

On Sunday, Rodney Childers found himself in what is often a no-win situation. A caution with five laps remaining erased Kevin Harvick's considerable lead and flipped what appeared to be a certain victory into a likely agonizing defeat.

If Childers instructed Harvick to pit many of those behind him would have enacted the antipodal game plan and thus, he would be buried in traffic with no more than two laps to recoup the lost track position due to NASCAR's overtime rules. A near-impossible proposition considering Phoenix is a tight one-mile oval with limited passing opportunities.

But if Harvick didn't stop, he would restart on older tires while most everyone else would, again, employ the opposite tactic. And no matter what option Childers chose, neither scenario would have given Harvick an advantage.

Sticking with the mindset that's been successful many times over, Childers elected to keep Harvick on the track. Also staying on the track were Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon.

"When it's that situation, you always wonder what the right thing to do is," Childers said. "Every race we've won here as the 4 team, that caution has come out late and we've ended up staying out and been able to be okay."

Previously Childers utilized a decision-by-committee approach pertaining to strategy. But a few years ago when working as a crew chief for Michael Waltrip Racing, Childers realized it was best if he made the decisive call and not delegate.

"Every two to three laps in your head, you say, ‘What if the caution comes out now, what if the caution comes out now?'" Childers said. "I used to always look over at my engineers and ask that question, and we would all kind of say, ‘Well, I think we should do this.'

"I finally figured out that was the wrong thing to do. You've got to go with your gut. You don't ask anybody anything, you've got to do what you think is right. It's my butt if it's wrong, and I want to be responsible."

That Harvick neither offers input on whether to pit nor questions Childers speaks to the confidence in the crew chief he handpicked after moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

There was a time when Harvick could be unmerciful on his crew chiefs. If the cars weren't to his liking or a strategy didn't pan out, he had no reservations about vocalizing his displeasure. But he and Childers have formed a strong rapport that is the backbone of a team that won the Sprint Cup championship in their first season together, nearly a second last year and consecutive campaigns where the No. 4 car has led over 2,000 laps.

Harvick trusts Childers implicitly, a belief that manifests itself during the critical moments of a race.

"Unless there's something wrong, I don't have the type of information that he and (Dax Gerringer, engineer) have sitting up on top of that pit box," Harvick said. "Losing control of the race and putting yourself in traffic is a tough spot to be in because we've lost a lot of races.

"I'm glad we're in that position because our cars are fast, and that's the only way (the competition) is going to beat us on days like that when it's all going well."

The decision not to pit for fresh Goodyears put Harvick on the defensive Sunday, requiring he not only get a perfect restart allowing him to build up some distance between himself and those who pitted, but then hold off whichever driver on fresh tires inevitably made their way to the front.

In this instance it was Carl Edwards, who stopped for just two tires, emerging as Harvick's challenger. With little haste Edwards dispatched Earnhardt and Dillon and caught Harvick as they took the white flag flap.

Yet try as he did, Edwards couldn't get by Harvick despite nudging Harvick out of the preferred bottom groove between the third and fourth turns. In a skillful display of driving, Harvick maintained his momentum while on the outside of Edwards and after twice banging off one another, Harvick won by 0.010 seconds -- tied for the seventh-closest finish in NASCAR history since the advent of electric timing and scoring in 1993.

Justifiably, Harvick will get a bulk of the credit for winning Sunday. His driving over the final two laps was superb and he very easily could have slid into the wall after Edwards bumped him.

The victory, however, goes beyond what unfolded over the final two laps and can be traced to Childers' conclusion that pitting was a losing strategy. He instead put his driver in the best position to win, and Harvick did just that.