NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Two Roads Diverge: HMS, RCR Seeing Offseason Moves Go Opposite Directions

Even coming off of a 2010 season that brought half of the Chase’s berths, a manufacturers’ title and a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, it was Chevrolet that saw its flagship operations undergo more offseason alterations than any other make in the garage. When the cars rolled into Daytona, the Bowtie Brigade arrived as the only manufacturer with two four-car teams carrying its colors.

One was Hendrick Motorsports, which while keeping its driver lineup intact shuffled the leadership atop the pit box for three of its four squads. The other was Richard Childress Racing, which returned to four cars for the first time since 2009… and did so despite a 2010 season that saw all three team cars make the Chase.

Three races in, neither team is setting the standings on fire. Neither team has put itself front and center as a title favorite. But both are moving in clear directions, paths that continue to develop into polar opposites right in front of our eyes. For while the Hendrick shuffle is already bearing fruit, the new four-car RCR is running much like the four-car RCR of old: mediocre.

It’s important to first note that in conducting any analysis of Hendrick Motorsports, especially early on in any season Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team must remain to the side as an outlier. The only one of HMS’s four race teams not to undergo a change in leadership during the offseason, nothing needs to be said about the performance of the No. 48 car the first few weeks. Johnson has gotten off to fast starts (winning two of the first three races to start last season) and won championships. Johnson has gotten off to slow starts (he finished 29th at Vegas back in 2008, with even evil genius Chad Knaus absolutely lost on how to improve the team’s car) and won championships. It’s business as usual for the No. 48, and they’ll be heard from come Chase time.

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It’s still early but three good runs for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with new crew chief Steve Letarte is one indicator that the offseason crew swaps at Hendrick Motorsports have worked out well.

So moving forward, this evaluation should be centered within Johnson’s trio of teammates: Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. However, it’s been clear from the announcement of the crew chief rotations at HMS that they were made with Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. in mind. Gordon was severed from the the No. 48 shop that always, for whatever reason, reaped the greater rewards of the No. 24/48 partnership, while Junior was paired up as his replacement; after all, Junior even running as Gordon did paired with Johnson under Steve Letarte would be dramatic improvement.

For those two drivers, the moves are already paying off. The original “Four-Time” broke a 66-race winless streak at Phoenix and was running in the top 10 at Vegas before a tire blowout ended his day early, while Dale Jr. has enjoyed back-to-back top 10 finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas. It’s been awhile; the last time he posted consecutive top 10s on a non-plate track was at Michigan and Bristol in the summer of 2009.

It’s early yet, but Johnson, Earnhardt and Martin are all in the top 12 in points. Take away Gordon’s tire failure Sunday, one that destroyed a top-10 car and he’d be sixth in points. It’s not the flashiest or most dominant display that’s been seen from HMS, but considering the down year that 2010 was for the team outside of the No. 48 shop, three races in, progress has indeed been made.

The exact opposite can be said over at Richard Childress Racing, which in expanding back to four cars for the first time since eliminating Casey Mears’ No. 07 team following an underwhelming 2009 season made a move that, on paper at least, was a step backward. Downsizing after that year of disappointment – none of their quartet made the Chase – it took just a few short months for their house to get cleaned up and competitive once again. In 2010, a three-car RCR led the points for nearly the entire race to the Chase, put three cars in the top 12 and won multiple races in the ten-week playoff, with Kevin Harvick remaining in the title running till the last lap at Homestead.

That successful model was altered to bring Paul Menard aboard, a driver that, while fully-funded has scored only two top 5s in 150 Cup starts. And now, the new RCR has the same Menard as its only driver in the top 15 in points, thanks in part to a top-10 finish at Daytona but more because of being the only driver in the RCR camp yet to fall victim to an engine failure or wreck (or both) in 2011.

To be fair, a massive crash at Phoenix derailed promising runs for both Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton. And until engine failures sidelined Burton and Kevin Harvick at Daytona, RCR’s entries were among the stoutest Speedweeks had to offer. But take a good look at this weekend’s results at Vegas, and the story is even more tell-tale; not one of four entries was even remotely a factor when the race was decided, not one of the four scored a top-10 finish, and between them, RCR led only three of the 267 laps run, the lowest total for the organization in a Vegas Cup race since 2006.

How much of a difference is it? This time last season, RCR had its entire fleet of cars in the top 7 in points. So far in 2011, RCR doesn’t have a full fleet in the top 27.

That’s not to point a finger at Menard or the No. 27 team as being an anchor dragging down what was a well-oiled machine at RCR. But the organization certainly doesn’t seem to have learned from the mistake it made back in 2009, turning over the keys to a Chase-caliber team with a big dollar in sponsor in Jack Daniel’s to Casey Mears, a driver that ultimately underachieved in every big-name ride he drove… and that’s not a short list. Mears, like Menard, does not have a stigma of homewrecker or difficult teammate attached to him. But for whatever reason, four cars did not work for RCR. And yet, on the heels of a highly successful 2010 season, they opted to bring the fourth car back anyway… and the results are resembling 2009, not 2010.

Add in a chink in RCR’s armor in terms of engine failures (ECR suffered two engine failures in Daytona Beach, while satellite team driver Regan Smith lost his power plant only 77 laps into Sunday’s event), and the direction RCR is moving can only be described as the polar opposite of Hendrick Motorsports.

Heading into off weekend number one, under a points system that’s already dramatically illustrating just how damaging a bad finish can and will be, that’s hardly encouraging.

“Contact Bryan Davis Keith”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/18454/

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