News broke on Friday morning at Bristol that Rodney Childers, longtime crew chief for the No. 55 Toyota at Michael Waltrip Racing, was leaving the team to take the same position at SHR. Officials at MWR confirmed Childers’ impending departure, but Childers and Greg Zipadelli, the competition director at SHR, both said a contract has yet to be signed.
“We love Rodney. We think a lot of him,” Zipadelli said. “He has been a friend of mine for a while. He is on our radar but we have no commitments, nothing signed. I talked to people yesterday about the opportunity so we would love to make him part of Stewart-Haas, but we are not there yet.”
It is expected that when Childers finalizes his deal, he will be serving as the crew chief for Kevin Harvick, who will be moving to SHR at the conclusion of this season.
Mark Martin, who will be driving Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy for the remainder of the season while Stewart recuperates from a broken leg, added some perspective to just how fast things change in NASCAR. When the season started, Martin was driving the No. 55 on a part-time basis with Childers as his crew chief.
Martin said his goal then was to help Childers and the 55 team secure a topnotch sponsor for the 2014 season so Childers could compete for a championship with MWR.
“I would assume the whole garage would be after Rodney Childers,” Martin said. “Last year he did a one-year contract instead of a long-term deal because he wanted to wait to see what transpired after our year together. He’s in that position now to look at all options.”
As for Martin, the 54-year-old claimed to be as nervous as a rookie as he prepared to take over Stewart’s No. 14. After spending the early part of the week posing for promotional shots, getting fitted for a fire suit and a racing seat, and trying to learn the names of the guys on his crew, Martin was thrust into the pressure cooker of two Sprint Cup practice sessions and a pair of qualifying laps at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“Today I’m a little bit nervous,” Martin said. “I’m not sure I can describe to you what it means to me that Tony wanted me to do this. He is definitely one of my heroes.”
Martin said he had a chance to visit Stewart following his accident in a sprint car race, and the two drivers shared plenty of war stories.
“I had some injury stories for him,” Martin said. “We had the biggest laugh. I thought he was going to start crying once laughing so hard.”
While Stewart continues his recovery, his race team continues to eye expansion next season. With Stewart, Harvick and Danica Patrick already signed, talk continues to swirl around a possible expansion to four cars that could potentially add Kurt Busch to the SHR stable of drivers.
When Stewart announced that Ryan Newman would not be returning next season, he said SHR wasn’t ready to expand to four cars. Zipadelli said he believes the thinking has changed because co-owner Gene Haas thinks Busch would be an asset to the team.
“This just kind of got sprung on us 14 days ago or less,” Zipadelli said. “Gene just showed some interest. Without getting into a ton more details, that is really all it is.
“I don’t know that it will all come together. It’s going to take an awful lot because it’s kind of late.”
With all of the questions and speculation swirling around the team, the biggest question of all won’t be answered until the Daytona 500 next February when Stewart returns to competition. Zipadelli said he expects Stewart to come back with a chip on his shoulder.
“I think he will come back to Daytona with something to prove to the world,” he said.
In the meantime, Stewart is focused on making sprint car racing safer to prevent a wreck like the one that sidelined him for the remainder of the year. He has also vowed to keep racing sprint cars during his days off, but Zipadelli said it was too soon to speculate on how much extracurricular racing his boss will or will not do in the future.
“He needs to go through his process right now, we need to go through ours and we need to spend time talking honestly,” Zipadelli said. “I don’t think you can take Tony Stewart and tell him he can’t drive other cars. That is what makes him who he is.
“Can we get him to cut his schedule back? Can we help him with this movement of making those cars safer for everybody including himself? I think those will be the things that come up in the next couple of months.”