Kevin Harvick, standing to the right of the winner's trophy, joins his crew in posing for photographers in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rodney Childers wrestled for months with the decision to join Kevin Harvick at Stewart-Haas Racing. Just when he thought he'd made up his mind to leave Michael Waltrip Racing, he and Brian Vickers won a race together at New Hampshire.
Weeks went by after that victory last July when Childers thought his heart was truly in remaining with MWR. He woke up one day and his mind was finally made up.
"My alarm went off and it hit me, it was like, 'I need to go to Stewart-Haas and crew chief Kevin Harvick,'" Childers told The Associated Press this week.
So much for peace of mind: MWR reacted to his decision by essentially benching Childers for the rest of the season. He couldn't work for almost six weeks. He pressure washed his house, tweeted with fans during races and had weekends off for the first time in his adult life.
Finally, in late October, MWR gave Childers his release and he was free to join to SHR and get a head-start on the 2014 season.
"When I started, it was a bit overwhelming, the way it's run is different because the crew chiefs have a lot more control," Childers said. "I got there and really wasn't happy with the way the cars were built, the equipment needed to be a lot nicer. I started to think after six or seven days, 'Man, this is going to take a long time to fix.'"
Childers grew so discouraged he thought it would be June or July before Harvick would win his first race with his new team.
Six weeks into the process, something suddenly changed.
"I left work one night and looked around and thought 'Crap, we can win one of the first four races and we can contend just like anyone else can,'" Childers said. "It had all come together so quickly, and from that moment on, our whole demeanor has been a lot different — it's been about winning."
That was evident all last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, where Harvick showed early on that his No. 4 Chevrolet was going to be a race-day contender. The car was ultimately so good, Harvick led 224 of the 312 laps Sunday en route to a win in just his second race with SHR.
It was the lone bright spot in a second consecutive crummy weekend for SHR. After a disastrous Speedweeks that was plagued with engine issues and four wrecked race cars, Phoenix wasn't much better for the organization. Kurt Busch had another engine failure, Danica Patrick was wrecked out for the second-straight week and Tony Stewart was 16th.
Perhaps because of the head-start Childers had on 2014 and Harvick's arrival, the No. 4 team doesn't have the same ailments as the other three SHR cars. Harvick finished second in his Daytona qualifying race, and was in the mix at the Daytona 500 until he was part of the last-lap crash.
Childers points to a December test at Charlotte as knowing he made the right decision to move and that he and Harvick can have a special season.
"My personal validation was not winning at Phoenix but leaving that Charlotte test," he said. "We knew that car wasn't very nice and we could build cars way better than that. But to still be that fast in a car we felt could be a lot better — it was like, 'This is really going to work out.'"
Will it work out Sunday in Las Vegas, on the first 1.5-mile track of the season?
"Our Las Vegas car is even better than our Phoenix car," Childers said.
BURTON'S DEBUT: Jeff Burton will leave the television studio this weekend to make his first start of the season.
The 21-time Cup winner left Richard Childress Racing at the end of last season and initially announced a deal as a test driver for Michael Waltrip Racing with only one guaranteed race — Sunday at Las Vegas. He's since been named an analyst for NBC Sports Group's coverage of NASCAR.
So after sitting out the first two weeks of the season, Burton will be behind the wheel of the No. 66 Toyota at Las Vegas. It's part of a new partnership between MWR and Jay Robinson Racing that allows the No. 66 to compete in all Sprint Cup races with Joe Nemechek as the primary driver, and Burton and Michael Waltrip on occasion.
"I am really looking forward to getting back in a race car this weekend," Burton said. "We spent a lot of time testing this winter. I really like the direction that Michael Waltrip Racing is heading."
Although Las Vegas is the only announced race to date, Burton said he feels more races are coming.
"There are other ones we feel pretty sure about that we're going to run, but we haven't really talked about it yet so we might change our mind," he said. "We got to run where it make sense to run and not just run because we want to run. It's got to be part of a plan and if it's not, we're making a mistake."
Burton has 16 career Cup starts at Las Vegas and won in 1999 and 2000.
TRUEX-300th START: Martin Truex Jr. will make his 300th career Cup start Sunday.
"I had absolutely no idea that my 300th start is coming up," said Truex. "I've been blessed to be with some great race teams and have enjoyed plenty of fond memories."
The two-time Nationwide Series champion made his first Cup start on Oct. 31, 2004 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and moved to the series full-time in 2006.
Truex ran 117 races with Dale Earnhardt Inc., 36 with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, 144 with Michael Waltrip Racing and will make his third start Sunday with new team Furniture Row Racing.
"They say when you're having fun time flies, and in my case that is so true because I have had an incredible amount of fun over the years," Truex said.
TRACK TAKEOVER: Richmond International Raceway is hosting a "Track Takeover" for all fans with a ticket to the April 26 Sprint Cup Series race.
In the hours leading up to the green flag, the RIR will allow fans onto the track, which will have interactive activities around the facility. There will be live music and driver Q&A sessions at the start/finish line, where fans will be allowed to sign the pavement and leave a message on the actual asphalt.
The backstretch will host educational and interactive components for all levels and ages in an attempt to take fans behind the scenes.
Fans can walk the ¾-mile oval hours before the race and guides will point out memorable spots around the track.