NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: After a Disappointing Season, RCR Contenders Again

So far, so good for Richard Childress Racing in 2010 – six combined races among three teams, three top fives, five top 10s, 153 of 450 laps led (33% of the total laps run) and a lowest finish of 11th. Let’s also not forget to mention a Budweiser Shootout win for Kevin Harvick. In short, not bad. But after a 2009 season that can best be described as an almost complete fiasco, any kind of successful start was going to look incrementally better than how the organization opened up last season.

Let’s rewind.

In 2007 and 2008 RCR placed all three cars (Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Harvick) in the Chase with Bowyer finishing the highest in the standings (third; 2007) behind the dominant, and seemingly inseparable duo of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. In 2008 the RCR wheelmen finished fourth, fifth and sixth. Then, 2009 was supposed to be the year that the company was going to kick on and make that final push for a long-awaited eighth Cup crown. The addition of the fourth car, piloted by Casey Mears, was going to be a crucial factor. Harvick said as much heading into the season:

“In ’06 we were close, in ’03 we were close, in ’07 Clint had a shot and the last couple of years we’ve had all three in [the Chase]… So it’s one of those deals where we’re like right there, and we just need that last little bit to push us over the edge.”

Senator-elect Burton was more cautious:

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but it’s also clear that it’s not enough. There’s a bit of anxiety about being able to take the next step, [winning a championship] because we haven’t done it. Until we do it, we don’t know that we can… So I don’t want to say we’re nervous, but we’re anxious about it. And we know it’s time to get it done.” Turns out Burton’s nerves were rather prescient as the four-car outfit all but imploded with Bowyer finishing a company high 15th, Burton 17th, Harvick 19th (who racked up 10 finishes of 30th or worse in the first 27 races) and Mears a distant 21st place. Not, as they say, what the doctor ordered by any stretch of the imagination.

But it wasn’t all bad news as the organization rallied, midseason, patching up the errors and building new and better cars. The stats backed up this shift of momentum in a northerly direction. Harvick, whose poor 2009 form even prompted him to ask out of his contract a year early, had two top fives in the last three races and four top 10s in the final seven races. Burton performed equally well with six straight top 15s including two second-place finishes at Phoenix and Miami to finish up the year. Bowyer, meanwhile, was 12th or better in six of the last seven races. On the eve of the season, he recognized the surge in form:

“With five races to go, you were seeing RCR cars running up front as a whole. It wasn’t just one. It was all of them running good,” he said. “That gives me a lot of optimism going into the season and thinking that we’ve got something for them this year.”

Long-term owner, Richard Childress, was mystified as to the root cause of his team’s 2009 struggles.

“We couldn’t put our finger on it,” he commented simply. Was it the addition of a fourth car, stretching resources too thin? Perhaps. The principal asked every crew chief, engineer and driver if they believed this was the case. “Nobody could say [it was because of the four-car expansion.] We just couldn’t save it.”

The early signs are, in 2010, that they have indeed saved the situation.

“We’re happy we have a shot… It leaves that sour taste in your mouth when you don’t win and you want to go back and win again,” Harvick said. “Right now, it’s just everybody’s very motivated, letting our cars talk for us.” Strong words, for sure.”

Some of this is down to the “huge dollar investments on equipment” Childress made over the offseason. It wasn’t just equipment, though, with the veteran organization also augmenting their engineering department: a move that has translated into some impressive straight line speed in 2010 right from the first laps at Daytona.

Cautiously, then, it’s been a very solid start to the year for the pared-down organization as they begin their quest for the Valhalla of a Cup Championship. But it’s important to note that it’s just two races. There is no doubt, a hugely long way left to go. Then there’s the elephant in the room – the phasing out of the hideous wing and the return of the spoiler. How teams react to this change will determine, ultimately, who runs strongly this season.

Burton is quick to take up this refrain.

“We got to start working on spoilers. That’s going to be a big change. You know, everybody has what they have for the next two weeks,” he said. “When the spoiler comes, you better be ready. Like Kevin said, if we get behind, you won’t catch back up anytime soon. We did that all last year. So that’s where I think the whole garage is working right now.”

Something tells me Childress and crew will be ready.

Four quick(ish) points to finish up on:

FONTANA: TIME TO PULL THE PLUG

If you looked up “momentum killer” in the dictionary (which technically you can’t but you get my point) you’d see a picture of the much maligned 2-mile Auto Club Speedway. Pothole delays in the biggest race of all are one thing; half-full stands in the second race is something much more sinister. The fact is the racing wasn’t that bad – JJ’s luck aside – and, perhaps, better than any of the most recent races there. But if NASCAR is about the fans then surely the fans are making their voices heard simply by not showing up. Something needs to change, for example making ACS a plate track, as I wrote about last year. Whatever the solution is, it needs to happen soon as the “we need to be in the second biggest media market” argument is wearing awful thin – as thin, in fact, as the overall attendance.

THE SAD DEMISE OF “TWIN”

I had meant to write earlier in the year on this point but I wanted to take a moment and recognize the sad demise of This Week in NASCAR – or TWIN as it’s more colloquially known to the aficionados of the long running, now canceled SPEED show. I’m sure, in time, Inside NASCAR – Showtime’s new shiny jewel – will grow on me, but for now I’m still really missing what I considered to be the best hour of non-racing NASCAR coverage on TV these past few years.

ANDY GARCIA’S DRAMATIC PA–USE

As I’ve mentioned in this column before, my biggest wish in NASCAR is not to “reach up and pull those belts tight one more time” and “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” around the track with 42 other maniacs. No, dear readers, it’s to give the command to start engines at a Sprint Cup race that I most crave. Of course, there’s marginally more chance I’m going to win the lottery than there is I’ll get to say (yell) those four most famous words in motorsports. But, with this in mind, I’ve always taken a big interest in the folks who are lucky enough to give the command. This weekend, it was actor Andy Garcia’s turn and for the first time in a while, we saw a new wrinkle: a dramatic pause, head bob and look away, between “Gentlemen” and “Start Your Engines.” Nice work, fella.

NO NEED TO PANIC: 34 TO GO

It’s not been the best of starts to the season for Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose, but the good news for the diverse trio of drivers is that the season is in its infancy: 24 races until the Chase rears its ugly, ill-conceived head, for starters. That said, a NASCAR season can spiral perilously out of control quick smart – just ask a certain most popular driver with a famous father. So, although there’s no need for panic stations quite yet, a couple more terrible weeks from the aforementioned three drivers would mire their respective seasons in the doldrums before the first (early) off week after Atlanta in two races’ time.

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