When Richard Childress announced this past off-season that his organization was going back to four cars, the decision was immediately met with a bunch of question marks. The team had just downsized at the conclusion of 2009, arguably the worst year the car owner had experienced. Not one of his drivers made the Chase or won a single event in Sprint Cup competition that year, with Clint Bowyer at 15th in points the highest finishing RCR driver.
When the Childress camp entered the 2010 campaign with only three teams, it was obvious they had turned the corner. Kevin Harvick led the points for most of the first 26 weeks and came oh so close to dethroning Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup. Teammates Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton also had a revival year, with both of them making the Chase. In addition, Bowyer claimed victory in two of the final ten races at Loudon and Talladega. Many claimed that downsizing back to a three car organization was one of the main factors behind the resurgence the Childress team had, only adding to the skepticism when he went back to a four car stable for 2011.
Early on, any questions about going back to four cars were answered. The performance was still there – in fact, with the exception of Burton’s group, who has struggled all year, you could make the argument the team as a whole was even stronger. Harvick quickly collected three wins in the first 12 races, in all of which he passed the leader with under five laps to go (two of those, the leader was Dale Earnhardt Jr.). Clint Bowyer was again having his typical season, gathering up consistent finishes and coming close to wins at Texas and Talladega. Even Paul Menard, the newest member at RCR, was posting some impressive results. With only two top-5 efforts in his previous 147 starts, Menard quickly had two in his first seven outings for Childress. Things were looking up, and RCR was again looking like the same team from 2010.
However, things have slowly taken a downturn over the course of the summer months. Perhaps Menard’s stunning triumph at the Brickyard 400 has masked some of the backtracking the team has done recently. Obviously, it all begins with Harvick, the number one driver at RCR. Since his win at the Coke 600 in May, Harvick has finished in the top-5 just once, coming at Pocono. We aren’t talking about the Pocono from a few weeks ago either. It was the one in early June, almost three months ago. His slide really didn’t become obvious until the past couple of races at Michigan and Bristol, with back to back 22nd place results. They weren’t due to bad luck either; he simply struggled. The amazing run of consistency he showed in 2010 and the beginning of this year has completely vanished.
It was expected that Harvick’s team would try some experimental things with the cars setup in some races going into the Chase, but looking at how his teammates have been running, that doesn’t appear to be the reason. Bowyer and Menard, who are desperately competing for two of the remaining spots in the Chase, have been equally as bad lately.
Bowyer is still unsure of where he will be racing next year, which likely has had some sort of an effect on his results. Since back to back runner up efforts at Texas and Talladega this spring, he has had just one top-5 finish in the 16 races since. He was as high as seventh in the standings after Richmond in April, and the momentum he had going looked to carry him further up the standings, not down. It goes without saying that is not how it turned out, as he sits 12th in points and winless with just two races before the Chase begins.
Bowyer’s season arguably hit rock bottom this past week at Bristol where he finished 26th (easily his lowest finish not accident/mechanical related). It was the perfect opportunity to gain points on 10th place Tony Stewart, who has also been struggling as of late. Instead, Bowyer was only able to gain a couple spots on the former Cup champ. He will likely need a win to make the Chase, but the way his team has been running, a victory seems very distant.
Menard is probably the only driver at RCR that is happy with the way his season has turned out. Despite struggling since his Indy win, he has enjoyed a career year with four top-5s, seven top-10s and a healthy shot to make the Chase. As mentioned though, he has faded since the Brickyard, where he was holding onto the second wild card spot. With finishes of 32nd, 26th, and 30th in the past three weeks, Menard has dipped to 20th in the standings, the last position to be Chase eligible. Despite the downslide, he still has a better shot than most at qualifying for the postseason. A few things need to happen for him to make it, and it begins with Brad Keselowski continuing his hot streak; should Keselowski make it in on points – he is just 21 points out – Menard would have a great shot at getting in through that second wildcard spot.
A year that started off so promising for RCR has slowly turned sour at the worst possible time. Harvick, their lone Chase representative so far, has practically been missing since June. His three wins will give him some valuable bonus points once the field resets after Richmond in two weeks, but how long can he remain near the top? If the summer months were any indication, not long at all.
Bowyer and Menard still have a chance, but it’s almost certain both of them won’t make it. In all likelihood, Childress is looking at a best case scenario of two cars in the Chase, which is nothing to be ashamed of. It is certainly a better outing than the last time he fielded four cars in 2009, but it would still be a step backwards from 2010. If the organization continues to struggle in the remaining three months, and sponsorship for Bowyer’s car remains in doubt, a return to three cars may be the best option.
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