The difference between champagne-soaked success and bitter, incongruous crumpled sheetmetal defeat in NASCAR is razor thin. And it’s a fact the good folks at Richard Childress Racing know all too well this season. After two years of placing all three cars in the elite Chase field, the addition of Casey Mears in a fourth car was meant to be the tipping point that took the organization from Chasers to Champion. However, a quick glance at the standings shows that this definitively has not been the case, with the quartet of RCR drivers all mathematically locked out of the Chase field and nary a win to speak of between them all season long. Put simply, it’s been a disastrous year for the organization, and the poster child for RCR’s seeming ineptitude has been none other than the team’s flagship driver, Kevin Harvick.
Just a couple of short months ago Harvick, an 11-year veteran who has run all 311 of his Cup races in Childress colors, reportedly asked out of the final year of his contract. His request got short thrift from the 40-year team owner, who said without trepidation after the story broke: “Shell will be the sponsor and Kevin will be the driver of RCR’s No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil Chevrolet Impala SS in 2010.”
Regardless, it was a nadir for an organization that has, for the past couple of years, been used to sustained success.
Now, on the one hand, what do you expect the team principal to say in that situation? He’s hardly going to hold the door open for Harvick to waltz out of the building and slap bang into free agency. But on the other hand, it was a public admittance from the team’s spiritual leader that the situation had got so untenable something had to change, and change fast.
And to that exact point, RCR announced this past week that sweeping changes had indeed been made within the organization, with Jeff Burton‘s crew chief Scott Miller reassigned a new position as Director of Competition while several others in that department realigned their roles. Cue Richard Childress himself:
“This reorganization is the result of a process that took place over the past few months to improve our performance… On-track performance is the lifeblood of RCR and everything we do is impacted by how competitive our cars are week-in and week-out. Our common goal remains the same: win races and compete for championships. The creation of these new processes and priorities, with greater accountability, will improve our performance and every aspect of our organization. “
Now, it’s far too early to expect these changes to have made a difference, but after a weekend which included a dominant win as an owner/driver on Saturday night and a second place run in the main event, Harvick’s best Sprint Cup finish of the season, the signs are there that perhaps there are better days ahead. It was a fact Harvick himself acknowledged in the post-race press conference:
“Well, our cars have run fairly well for the last seven, eight weeks. We just wind up wrecked or something stupid happening for the last little while. Seems like everything that’s been happening has just kind of piled on. You know, any momentum is in a good in a good direction is a positive thing for us. It lets us know that we do remember how to race, just overcome a lot of things and hopefully keep it going.”
Sure, 2009 is not going to go down in the annals of RCR history as a great year, but it might still be viewed as a turning point on the way to a future championship. NASCAR is an unrelenting, unremitting sport where the only way to stay ahead (or at the very least competitive) is to sprint at full speed. That’s not to say RCR hasn’t done that this season; it’s just that what they’ve tried hasn’t worked. But the owner has been here before, and with the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt back in 2001, it’s fair to say he’s seen worse, much worse. Just as one swallow does not a summer make, nor does one second-place finish turn around a season. Of course, the irony is that had Clint Bowyer not spun out with 15 to go, Harvick would almost certainly have won the race as his car was the one to beat on long runs. But it wasn’t to be, and Harvick’s 95-race winless streak that dates all the way back to the 2007 Daytona 500 continues.
That being said, with a good weekend to build on, changes in the organization now in place and with 11 races, essentially to prepare for next year, my money is on RCR bouncing back in style in 2010 and putting the debacle of 2009 firmly in the rearview mirror. And if you don’t believe it’s possible in a short space of time, just ask Kurt Busch over at Penske Racing about the difference a year can make.
Three quick points to finish up:
- Sunday night’s Labor Day classic marked a century of appearances at the top level for both Paul Menard and David Stremme. Now it’s fair to say neither driver has excelled over those 100 races, and in both cases the word “mediocre” might even be a generous description. Menard has just two top 10s, an average finish of 25.9, and only 35 lead-lap finishes. If he didn’t have sponsorship from his father’s company, there’s little doubt he would not be currently racing in the Cup Series. Stremme, meanwhile, has just three top 10s (all of which came in 2007) and for the most part has looked like “Bambi on Ice.” In short, neither has records to be proud of, and the reality is both drivers have had something in the region of 80-90 more starts than their respective talent deserve. But then again, life isn’t fair… as my good old Dad always tells me.
- Self-deprecation is not usually a quality I associate with Juan Pablo Montoya, but there was a lovely exchange in the post-race press conference when the Colombian was asked if he hit the wall at some point. Montoya affirmed that this was, in fact, the case in one particular instance. When asked what happened, his wry reply was, “I ran out of talent.” Considering his cushion of 88 points on 13th placed Brian Vickers, Montoya would have to have a lot of things go wrong to miss out on the Chase. It could, however, still happen… but if Montoya can keep his fenders clean at Richmond and finish 18th or better, he’ll make the field of 12. Given the parlous state of his team for much of this season it would be an incredible effort and I, for one, really hope he makes it. Will he win the championship? Very unlikely. But just getting there shows how much he has picked up the pace in just three short years in stock car racing.
- Finally, I can’t wait for Saturday night which could be an instant classic, especially if Vickers and Kyle Busch run in the top five while one of the current Chasers has a horrible night. At a track renowned for three-groove racing, Richmond is a gem of a track, the perfect setting for such a crucial race. So let’s hope the race lives up to expectations… and something tells me it will.