Even for a driver who last season was dubbed by numerous writers as “John Wreck Townley,” this past weekend at Phoenix was certainly a rough one for the RCR wheelman. Following a crash in practice on Friday afternoon, John Wes Townley was benched by his team, then forced to sit and watch as Clint Bowyer took the wheel of the No. 21 car that carried the colors of his father’s restaurant chain, Zaxby’s. Townley will also sit out this upcoming weekend’s event at Texas Motor Speedway.
1,000 miles away, another of Richard Childress Racing’s development projects made it through practice and qualifying for Sunday’s ARCA race at Salem unscathed, but that was about all that went right for that No. 31 team. After starting at the back of the field, Sunday’s race proved to be an absolute disaster for that organization; driver Tim George Jr. was lapped, got a Lucky Dog pass, and then subsequently lost it because he failed to heed instructions from his spotter to start at the tail end of the longest line.
Frustration from that penalty and a day mired in traffic led George to wreck both Rick Ware Racing’s Timmy Hill and top-five contender Joey Coulter. Despite those efforts to thin the field, George still came home 16th, finishing behind even longtime ARCA stalwart Darrell Basham. That’s not a knock at Basham at all for a fine run, but come on; we’re talking RCR equipment in the ARCA Racing Series. Finishes like that are not acceptable for an organization of RCR’s caliber.
All in all, it was not exactly a proud weekend for RCR development. Granted, East Series regular Ryan Gifford and Truck Series rookie Austin Dillon had the night off, but for two of the team’s top three developmental drivers to be either benched or involved in numerous incidents for no good reason is distressing.
In the case of Townley, suffering through copious amounts of twisted sheetmetal can’t be catching RCR off guard. It’s not exactly a secret that Townley was signed by RCR because of his Zaxby’s sponsor dollars rather than his talent behind the wheel; Townley endured 10 DNFs in 26 starts last year while failing to qualify for six more races. In the case of George, his performance so far in 2010 on the track has been less than inspired, especially in a series where his team and resources are the class of the field. Through three races, George has only one top-15 finish, and that was a disappointing eighth-place run on the rain-soaked road course of Palm Beach International Raceway. For a driver with a sports car background to be unable to mount any credible challenge for that win, in a race where less than a handful of drivers in the field had ever run on rain tires, speaks volumes.
As did his performance at Salem. Yes, the 16th-place finish that George put together at Salem was a career-best in his three starts at the treacherous speed bowl. But while George was running at the finish for the first time of a Salem race, the result did not come without incident. Far from it. What’s more, even when not busy destroying the cars of his competitors, George failed at any point during the event to make any kind of improvement, be it in his running order position or apparently adjusting to his car, as he ran at the back of the pack all day long.
Unfortunately for RCR, these problems aren’t confined solely to a lack of results on the racetrack… there’s been other issues. Earlier this season while in Las Vegas, Townley was cited for underage alcohol possession, an offense while minor is decidedly uncharacteristic of development drivers in elite rides at this level of NASCAR. Call it an example of “boys being boys,” the fact that a driver with one of the best rides in the garage and on the cusp of NASCAR’s biggest stage is taking risks like being seen breaking the law (however trivially) is not indicative of the drive, appreciation, or focus needed to succeed at stock car racing’s highest levels.
As for George, while he was already starting at the back of the field for Sunday’s ARCA race due to an unscheduled pit stop to deal with radio troubles, his day already started a lap down when he showed up for the drivers’ meeting late. There’s a word for a learning driver demonstrating a lack of punctuality for a well-known meeting: unacceptable.
That seeming aloofness to the responsibilities of being an ARCA driver continued into the afternoon, as George on numerous occasions failed to heed instructions from his spotter on where to lineup for restarts until the fourth or fifth exchange over the radio. George was also black-flagged the lap after receiving a Lucky Dog pass because of failing to lineup properly. Frontstretch did receive reports after the race concluded that the No. 31 team had suffered radio communication problems early in the event, but the issues regarding lineups continued well past the halfway point of Sunday’s 200-lap race.
Call it making a mountain of a molehill, but between the team’s Nationwide Series driver being benched and their ARCA driver putting on what was at best an embarrassing excuse of a show at Salem, the weekend past was not proud for RCR driver development. And that problem could not surface at a worse time for the organization… because they will have holes to fill, and in the near future.
Despite his excellent performance on both the Nationwide and Cup side so far this season, longtime RCR driver Kevin Harvick is still uncertain as to where he’ll be racing in 2011, and still is widely rumored to be heading to Stewart-Haas Racing. Jeff Burton is rumored to be considering a run for political office, not the checkered flag, as early as 2012, making his remaining days in the team’s No. 31 numbered. That’s the senior leadership of the RCR organization likely gone within the next two seasons. If the current issues both on- and off-track coming from Townley and apparently George are any indication, that senior leadership is focusing on other things than the RCR organization while they’re not in their own cars.
While Austin Dillon has shown flashes of brilliance in his Truck campaign and Gifford continues to make a favorable impression on and off the track in the East Series ranks, the fact remains that two of the team’s powerful development seats are being occupied by drivers that have no certain success in their futures. Just look at this past weekend.
With the Cup program running competitively again, RCR has been seen as largely resurgent in 2010. But hearing and observing what’s next in the pipeline for the organization, how long will it continue?