NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2013: A Season of Redemption for Richard Childress Racing?

2012 was not a season to write home to mom about for the folks at Richard Childress Racing. For a three-car team used to competing for the postseason title, simply staying on the lead lap was the primary struggle in what came to be a year to forget. Kevin Harvick won one race, the lone victory for RCR on the Cup level and was the only driver in the stable to make the Chase. Paul Menard wrapped up the year in 16th place, virtually nonexistent at the front of the field while Jeff Burton posted just two top-5 results, both at Daytona en route to 19th in the final standings.

As the 2013 season dawns, the gang from Welcome, NC looks to turn the page and get back to the top of the heap. In the Cup Series, the driver lineup remains unchanged but it’s the mentality that has to be different. Harvick, who has already announced he’s leaving at the end of the season, will remain in the team’s primary ride, fully sponsored by Budweiser, Jimmy John’s and Rheem. He’ll be joined by Burton, back in the No. 31 and Menard whose family-supported No. 27 car is up for renewal with Childress at the end of 2013. In theory, with the Dillon brothers up-and-coming it’s possible, although not probable all three of these wheelmen could be entering the final year with the program.

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Kevin Harvick will leave Richard Childress Racing after 2013 to join a growing stable of drivers at Stewart-Haas. Will that ticking clock prove to be motivation for him in his final year driving the No. 29 car… or a major distraction to a team looking to rebuild?

Will that lead to a “lame duck” syndrome or a lasting desire to leave the organization in good shape? Mechanically, RCR has put their best foot forward after working hard to upgrade their behind-the-scenes personnel. The biggest adjustment comes with Luke Lambert, returning to guide Burton’s efforts after nearly winning with the driver, multiple times down the stretch in the 2011 season. Meanwhile, Shane Wilson moved off of the box in 2012 to make room for the return of Gil Martin to lead Harvick’s crew. That combination, which won Phoenix last November expects an exceptional increase in performance right out of the box. Finally, Slugger Labbe will be back on the box for Menard, a much-needed voice of stability within the program. The trio, widely looked as a good mix should lead to improvement on paper. But still, after such an ugly year the question remains legitimate as to whether RCR will really be capable of turning this long-term slump around.

There are those who believe the focus of the organization is not on the top rung of the ladder as the Dillons continue their move to the Cup series. While that is an easy angle to take when the Cup teams are struggling, it simply isn’t accurate. RCR has always been, and still is, populated by racers. Many of the people in the organization spend their spare time doing some other form of racing. If employees weren’t focused, they would certainly not be heading to the racetrack when their car or truck wasn’t involved in the competition.

Nobody has the perfect formula to make RCR a winner again, or they’d take it to Richard Childress and try to make a fortune with it. Childress has put a lot of money behind his company’s efforts in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series because winning is his top priority. The company has recognized the role of engineers in today’s NASCAR, having one on staff since 1989 and have continually expanded their roles in the company. With the new car coming out and, at least for the short term, leveling the playing field in the Cup series, the folks at RCR are positioned to resume their place at the top of the standings.

Most of the criticism surrounding this organization revolves around the disconnect between Cup chaos and their success in lower series of NASCAR. Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon had quality years in the Nationwide Series, ultimately short of a title but impressive nonetheless. Sadler gets replaced by Brian Scott in 2013, along with the money that comes with it but the downgrade should not be as steep as suggested. Joey Coulter and Ty Dillon had similar success in the Truck Series, winning once each and ending the year top 4 in series points. The brothers Dillon, in fact both were in the midst of their point battles until the bitter end of last season. During media Q&A time Monday, both of Childress’ grandsons acknowledged they learned quite a bit in 2012 and knew what not to do in 2013. The drivers both felt like there were a couple of things that cost them that, in the future, won’t happen again thanks to the experience of falling short in their respective series. The old adage that you must first lose a championship before you can win it certainly seems to apply to both of the Dillons.

Overall, there’s no doubt that times have been better at RCR in the past. After last season, Coulter joined Sadler in bolting to another organization; the undercurrent of satisfaction, in both cases was reported to be Childress’ obsession with his grandsons’ programs. Some fans believed that their departure, along with Kevin Hamlin leaving to spot for Kasey Kahne and pit coach Matt Clark leaving to work at SPEED signified something was wrong with the direction of the organization. Burton, however doesn’t think there could be anything further from the truth. While he acknowledged that the company was not competitive the last couple of years, he felt the top level players leaving was their decision based on multiple factors. In end, one of the sport’s “elder statesmen” believes the company is in better shape.

I’m of that belief, as well although it’s clearly a “make or break” year for a car owner in Childress looking to be well-positioned for when Austin Dillon moves up to Cup in 2014. Because of that, it is going to be interesting to see what happens at Childress if the No. 29 struggles out of the gate. With Harvick announcing he’ll be gone after the year, it will be hard to keep everyone pulling in the same direction if the wheels start to come off of the cart early. Assuming they don’t, Menard and Burton will probably be close to the Chase cutoff again this year, while a couple of wins could position all three teams to be in the final battle for the series title.

Only time will tell if it’s the final swan song, potentially for all three at RCR.

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