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(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

2017 NASCAR Cup Team Review: Richard Childress Racing

Richard Childress Racing’s 2017 season was a triumph but yet simultaneously a struggle. Overall, however, it ended up being a disappointment.

The venerable organization has been around since 1971, the oldest team in the sport outside of the Wood Brothers. For many years now, their mentality when it comes to racing has been that the season is a long grind and that reliability and consistency are much better attributes than raw speed. They haven’t come close to having a driver lead just 100 laps in a season since Kevin Harvick left. Ryan Newman failed to reach Victory Lane, but did have 32 top 20 finishes in his runner-up season in 2014. RCR Chevrolets have won five or more races in just three of the last 22 seasons. Hendrick Motorsports, by comparison, haven’t won five or less races in just two of the last 22 seasons.

In 2017, Childress won two races, its first two since Harvick left the team in 2013. Both of those victories required either pit stop strategy or good fuel mileage. Also, unlike in years past, they were completely irrelevant in the playoffs, with neither the No. 3 or the No. 31 even getting close to advancing out of the Round of 16.

In 2016, Austin Dillon had massive gains from his first two seasons in the sport. He didn’t win, but he did improve his average finishing position from 21st to 16th and made his first appearance in the playoffs.

In 2017, Dillon fell to an average finish of 19th and wouldn’t have come close to making the playoffs if he hadn’t of gotten his very first victory in the Coca-Cola 600. The win at Charlotte was by far the highlight of the year for RCR. It was the first time the No. 3 had won a Cup race since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s final win in October of 2000. Earnhardt’s final victory in the Coca-Cola 600 came nearly 24 years to the day of Dillon’s win.

#CocaCola600 #VictoryLane

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Paul Menard had a decent season. He was the only RCR driver not to win a race or make the playoffs, but he was also the only one to show improvement from 2016 outside of the win column. Still, that improvement was only marginal at best; what’s really the difference between finishing 25th in points and finishing 23rd in points? Especially in a season where all three of his top 10 finishes came in plate races?

In late July, Menard announced that he would be leaving for Wood Brothers Racing at the end of the season, effectively turning the second half of the year into a lame duck session. Although RCR hasn’t officially confirmed whether or not the No. 27 will be back next year, it doesn’t seem likely the team will return with crew chief Matt Borland having been shipped over to Germain Racing to work with Childress grandson Ty Dillon.

Ryan Newman was the best driver on the team in 2017. He finally won a race for RCR and would have made the playoffs even if both himself and Dillon hadn’t of won races. He ended the season with more top five and top 10 finishes than in 2016. Like Dillon, however, he couldn’t do much in the playoffs, leaving after the Round of 16.

So, why exactly was 2017 a let down for RCR when two of its three drivers showed improvement from the previous year? It’s simple, really: the most important driver took a step back.

Menard is gone and Newman is 40 and has one top 5 points finish in his career. Dillon is supposed to be the face of the team and one of the brightest young stars coming up in the sport. He should not have regressed like he did in 2017, when three of his contemporaries (Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Larson) had break out years. There’s a reason he’s in the No. 3, after all.

Dillon had nine more top 10 finishes in 2016 than he had in 2017. That’s a failure right there. If there were no playoffs, he would have finished 19th in points. Rookie Erik Jones would have finished 155 points ahead of him. That’s an even bigger failure right there.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom for Childress entering 2018 and beyond. To be fair, every Chevrolet outside of Elliott’s and Larson’s was off the pace for much of last year to the more aerodynamic bodies of the Fords and especially the Toyotas. With the new Camaro ZL1 body coming to Cup next year, everybody racing Chevrolets should at least be on a more even playing field now with the rest of the field.

And RCR isn’t taking this bad season laying down. They brought back championship winning crew chief Andy Petree to become the team’s new Vice President of Competition after Petree started reviewing the competition area in late October. They’ve also began a new partnership with Richard Petty Motorsports, bringing two of the most iconic cars in NASCAR history (the No. 43 and the No. 3) under one roof. They also have a new sponsor in Liberty National on Newman’s No. 31 next season.

RCR needs to improve next season, especially with Dillon. This old school mentally they have of forsaking speed for reliability in this day and age, where the point system rewards wins and running up front, seems a bit outdated. If business doesn’t pick up next year, maybe it’s time for RCR to come up with a new game plan.

About Michael Finley

Fifth season covering, fifteenth season watching NASCAR. Graduate of Salisbury University. Member of the NMPA.

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