Richard Childress Racing is set to set sail with a fourth Sprint Cup team in 2009. The sponsor is on board in General Mills, and Childress expects to name a driver in the next week or two. (That driver is likely to be Casey Mears, and may involve a number and sponsor switch with the No. 07 of Clint Bowyer; but in that case, Bowyer would probably take his cars, crew and points). In this day and age, multi-car teams are the ones winning races and championships. RCR is certainly in position to add a car, having put all three current cars in the Chase for the Sprint Cup a year ago and being in position to do so again with a little racing luck.
Adding a new team to an established stable isn’t easy, though. Recent additions to powerhouse teams have had mixed results. Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Penske Racing South already had Cup championships when they added teams, as did RCR when it first expanded to two, then three cars. Powerhouses Roush Fenway Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. had also added cars to successful lineups. And the results have been mixed. Since 1999, these six teams have added a total of eight new Cup teams. While some debuts were destined for stardom from the start, others were less than auspicious. All but two have gone on to contend for championships, however, so this bodes well for the new No. 33 in the long run. In the meantime, here is a look at my ranking of the inaugural seasons for the eight teams added to the major players in the last 10 years.
The (incredibly) Good
No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports, 2002 (Jimmie Johnson)
The fourth team at HMS came on the scene fulltime in 2002 as a mixed bag in the prediction department. On one hand, you had the chassis that Jeff Gordon won his 2001 championship with. On the other hand, you had a driver that had hardly set the world on fire in the then-Busch Series with only one win to his credit. Gordon was (and is) the owner of record, and many openly questioned his choice of driver when there were guys like Jason Keller available who had had longer and more glorious Busch careers than Johnson, as well as his choice of Chad Knaus as crew chief when Knaus had had only a brief stint as a crew chief with Melling Racing. The critics were silenced when Johnson and the No. 48 team pulled off what is arguably the finest rookie campaign in Cup history, winning three times and becoming the first rookie ever to lead the championship standings before finishing fifth on the year in driver and owner points. His car owner finished 14th in his rookie year. This team has also withstood the test of time, with two championships and no points finish lower than fifth in six full seasons. Johnson’s 35 wins are the most of any driver since 2002.
No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing, 1999 (Tony Stewart)
Stewart’s team made JGR a multi-car team, and the team was fast off the blocks. Stewart grabbed three wins, two poles and finished fourth in the driver and owner standings on the strength of 21 top-10 finishes in 34 races and an average finish of just under 11th. The only reasons the No. 20 team’s performance ranks second to the No 48, who had three wins and 21 top 10s as well, though in 36 races, are Johnson’s four poles and points lead. Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli had an immediate rapport, and as that paved the way for his stellar finish average, it also brought Stewart Rookie of the Year honors, an award that Johnson lost to Ryan Newman. The team has also gone on to two championships and 33 wins since its inception.
No. 17 Roush Racing, 2000 (Matt Kenseth)
The No. 17 became the fifth team at Roush Racing (now RFR) in 2000 with yet another rookie driver, Kenseth. Paired with old rival Robbie Reiser as crew chief, Kenseth put together a solid season with a win, 11 top-10 finishes and a respectable 14th-place driver and owner points finish. Kenseth was the 2000 Rookie of the Year. This team has also withstood the test of time: Kenseth is the 2003 Cup champion and the team is one of just two to make every Chase for the Sprint Cup since its 2004 debut.
No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc., 2000 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
The team owner was himself in contention for the 2000 championship, and his son came onto the scene in DEI’s second car with intense scrutiny from media and fans. Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury struggled to communicate for part of the season, but when they were on, they were on. Earnhardt Jr. won at Texas and Richmond, as well as the Winston (now the Sprint All-Star Race). The team’s lack of consistency gives the No. 17 the edge here and gave it to them in the 2000 points race as well-the No. 8 finished 17th in owner points. The team went on to win 17 races to date, all with Earnhardt Jr. as driver. Earnhardt Jr. left the team in 2008. The car is now driven by Mark Martin and Aric Almirola and is currently 15th in owner points.
No. 15 Dale Earnhardt Inc., 2001 (Michael Waltrip)
The No. 15 team set the gold standard for coming out of the box hot, winning the 2001 Daytona in their first race as DEI’s third team. The glory didn’t last long, though, as the team, with driver Waltrip and crew chiefs Scott Eggleston, Steve Hmiel and Slugger Labbe struggled for most of the rest of the season. Daytona was the team’s only top-five finish, and they managed just two more top-10 runs all season long, finishing 28th in owner points, with Waltrip 24th in the driver rankings. When Waltrip left DEI to form his own team, Paul Menard took over the No. 15 ride.
No. 30 Richard Childress Racing, 2002 (Jeff Green)
Green was hand-picked to drive the No. 30 when RCR expanded to three teams in 2002. And why not? Green had run away with the then-Busch Series title by 616 points in 2001, a record at that time. (Incidentally, Green trounced Johnson that year, finishing the 2000 season with a 1,741-point advantage over Johnson’s 10th-place effort) Kevin Harvick had been penciled in for the ride, but instead took over the No. 3 (changed to No. 29) after the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. The No. 30 got off to an inauspicious start in 2001 with Green and crew chief Todd Berrier, managing six top-10 finishes and an 18th-place finish in owner points, while Green took 17th in the driver standings. This team struggled though its early existence with several drivers, including Green, Steve Park and Jeff Burton, finally coming into its own in 2007, making the Chase with driver Clint Bowyer and new number 07 on the door.
No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing, 2005 (Jason Leffler, Terry Labonte, JJ Yeley, Denny Hamlin)
To say the No. 11 didn’t get off to the same start as the No. 20 had at JGR is a massive understatement. Under four drivers and crew chiefs Dave Rogers and Mike Ford, the team grabbed just four top-10 finishes and a pole in 35 races. Three of the top 10s and the pole came from driver Hamlin who took over the ride for seven races late in the year. Season’s end saw the No. 11 in a dismal 33rd place in owner points. The team’s turn around came in 2006 and it was a swift 180 degrees. Hamlin clicked with the team, who made the Chase in both 2006 and 2007.
No. 77 Penske Racing South, 2008 (Sam Hornish Jr.)
Penske Racing is a successful organization, and Hornish came onto the scene as a three-time IRL championship driver with an Indianapolis 500 win under his belt. Whether it’s the learning curve, lack of equipment or something else, the No. 77 team under Hornish and crew chief Chris Carrier has struggled this year, with the lone highlight being a second-place run in the non-points paying Sprint Showdown. The team is in a second incarnation of sorts, having existed as a satellite team to Penske a few years ago with drivers Robert Pressley, Dave Blaney and Brendan Gaughan. However, this is a new team to the Penske stable in 2008. While they are 34th in owner points, it’s not yet clear where any fault lies-driver, equipment, or an overall dysfunctional atmosphere at Penske.
Giving the No. 77 the benefit of the doubt as there is no growth to track for this new-in-2008 team, it’s a safe bet that the No. 33 will have solid results in the coming seasons, even if they don’t get of to the start they hope and expect to. With the exception of the Nos. 15 and the 77 (and again, the No. 77 gets a bye), all have either won or contended for Cup championships since their first seasons. While a season such as the No. 20 or 48 had is an unreasonable expectation (Mears is simply not the same caliber of driver as Stewart or Johnson), it’s not unreasonable that the team will score a few top 10s and possibly win a race. Five years down the road, look for this team to be just fine. By then, someone else will be the new team in town, and they just might be comparing their chances to the first year of Team 33.