NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Dialing It In: Richard Childress Right Where He Left Off

This season is shaping up to be one of the best for long-time team owner Richard Childress. After years of rebuilding and disappointment, the six-time championship car owner appears to be back atop his game.

Earlier this year, Childress inked driver Kevin Harvick to a three year contract extension, despite losing primary sponsor Shell/Pennzoil. Since then, the No. 29 team has charged to the points lead and has accumulated three wins along the way – including last week’s race in Michigan. Tuesday, the team announced Budweiser would be joining the team for the next three years.

Childress’s success is not limited to Harvick and the No. 29 team, however. The organization’s two other teams – the No. 31 of Jeff Burton and No. 33 of Clint Bowyer – are currently qualified for this year’s Chase. The team also announced last week Paul Menard would be joining RCR for the 2011 season, bringing his experience and sponsor money with him as well

In addition, Harvick’s win last weekend in Michigan gave the Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines department eight wins in the last seven weeks (Harvick at Daytona, Austin Dillon at Iowa, Harvick at Gateway, Ron Hornaday at ORP, Jamie McMurray at Indy, Elliott Sadler at Pocono, Juan Pablo Montoya at Watkins Glen and Harvick again in Michigan). Pretty impressive numbers, if you ask me.

While many have seen 2010 as a resurgence of RCR, it really marks one of the best comeback stories the sport has ever seen. Last season may have been a low point for the organization, but disappointment has not been the norm at RCR.

As a driver, Childress finished in the top 10 in the series standings four times before stepping out of the car and handing the wheel to a guy named Dale Earnhardt. In their first year together, Earnhardt one-upped his team owner with a seventh-place finish in the points. Ricky Rudd gave Childress his first win as a car owner in 1983, earning two wins that year. Childress partnered with Earnhardt for good in 1984 and Earnhardt gave Childress his best points finish with a fourth in return. After that, it was a match made for the history books.

Richard Childress Racing became synonymous with winning. Earnhardt drove the black No. 3 to six championships – 1986-1987, 1990-1991 and 1993-1994. Their cars were some of the best at the track, their driver was tough as nails and the pit crew not only got the job done every time, they set the bar for years to come.

The Earnhardt-Childress pairing withstood criticism and tough times throughout their years together and always remained focused on winning. Following a season in which Earnhardt won two races and finished second in the points, the team was poised to make yet another championship run in 2001. Then came the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Much has been said and written about that fateful day, but one thing that cannot be ignored is the blow it sent to the Childress organization. Childress contends the team was ready to fight for the title, which would have given Earnhardt a record eighth championship. With their driver gone and such a bad situation set in their laps, the organization did the best they could to move forward.

After eight straight years of finishing in the top 10 of points, RCR was able to keep the streak going with Harvick in 2001 – thanks to two wins, six top fives and 16 top 10s. However, from 2002-2006, only one RCR driver finished in the top 10 in points (Harvick was fifth in 2003). The 2004 season saw no Childress wins and other teams were emerging to take the place of the once dominant organization.

Since 2006, however, the team has slowly been working its way back to the top. Burton and Bowyer joined the organization and brought more wins and more success to the company. Enough so, that in 2009 Childress decided it was time to expand yet again, this time bringing on Casey Mears as the team’s fourth driver.

In Daytona the RCR bunch was optimistic for the season to come. However, the hope that was there at Daytona quickly fell to the wayside as the Childress cars struggled throughout the entire season. Mears turned out to be a disappointment at best and all of the teams struggled with equipment not to the standards of those racing against them.

In the end, no Childress car went to victory lane in 2009 and none of the four cars made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. What was poised to be a great year, turned into one of the most disappointing of the team’s storied career.

What a difference a year makes.

Scaling back to three teams and producing much better equipment – something that began before the end of the 2009 season – has turned the organization around and made it a winning team once again. Harvick has inked an extension and is leading the points, Burton and Bowyer are both currently qualified for the Chase, and Budweiser has just signed a three-year deal to sponsor Harvick’s ride.

Throughout it all – despite multiple opportunities – Childress never quit.

“I think there’s a certain amount of fighter still left in me, I’m getting a little older, but you still have to fight to survive and I want to win another championship for this organization,” Childress said. “I want to be involved in it, and that drives me.

“I’ve been a fighter all my life, and I’ve been in positions where I’ve had to make really tough decisions and do things,” he said. “With all the things that’s went on throughout my life, I still want it today as bad as I did in 1981 when I got out of the car.”

Along with the success on the Cup side of things, the Dillon side of the family has also helped Childress get back to his winning ways. While son-in-law Mike Dillon’s career resulted in only three top fives and 15 top 10s, it has been the third generation of the Childress family that has shown the promise of the future.

At just 20 years of age, Dillon has seven Nationwide Series starts and is currently fifth in the Camping World Truck Series standings with one win. Piloting the black Bass Pro Shops No. 3 Chevrolet, the young Dillon has lit a fire under his grandfather and the entire RCR organization.

Even Austin’s younger brother, Ty, has given Childress success. After racking up impressive numbers in the Bandeloro and Legend Car series at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Ty Dillon won the all-star event at the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway and made his NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut at South Boston Speedway last May. The youngest Dillon is currently competing for the Rookie of the Year title in that series, while carrying the famous black and white Mom ‘N Pop’s colors.

The family success and the coming together of the organization as a whole have put Richard Childress back where he belongs, at the top his game.

“…and the two grandsons coming along now, it just makes me more excited with both of them racing, and it gets you excited to watch them,” Childress said. “The three drivers we have today, and with Paul Menard coming on, we’re really excited about the following year. We have to get through this one, but we have a lot of good future for RCR, I think.”

As the year moves closer and closer to the final 10-race Chase, it appears that if Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs or Jack Roush want to lock up that title at the end the year, they will have to beat Childress to do so – just as they would have had to do in the mid-’90s.

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