RCR biggest mover at midway point of season

Richard Childress Racing was shut out of the championship hunt

last season, when all four of its drivers struggled through a

winless year.

A slew of changes followed, from personnel and shop procedures

to dropping a driver to make it a three-car team. Now, at the

midseason mark in the Sprint Cup Series, RCR is NASCAR’s most

improved team.

Led by current points leader Kevin Harvick and his two

victories, RCR has two drivers currently eligible for the Chase for

the Sprint Cup championship. All three would be inside the top 12

had an ill-timed caution not cost Clint Bowyer a win Saturday night

at Daytona International Speedway.

Instead, that late yellow as he closed in on the white flag set

up a sequence of events that took Bowyer from certain victory to a

17th-place finish while Harvick got the win. Jeff Burton, who led

11 laps, finished fifth to cap what had been a dominating night for


Where RCR now finds itself is a direct result of the commitment

owner Richard Childress showed exactly one year ago.

“He stepped out on a huge limb to spend the money to start over

… halfway through the year, and it’s paying off now for us,”

Harvick said.

This time last year Harvick was 26th in the standings, Burton

was 15th and Bowyer was 16th. Headed into the 19th race of the

season this Saturday night at Chicago, Harvick holds a 212-point

lead over Jeff Gordon in the standings, while Burton is eighth and

Bowyer 14th – but only 49 points out of the top 12.

“It’s pretty remarkable, to tell you the truth,” Harvick said.

“Richard is the one who pulled all the triggers to make everything


So who else has made remarkable gains through the first half of

this season?

The driver who gets the most attention for his improvement this

year is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who cracked the top-12 this week and is

up 10 spots from here he was running this time last season.

Receiving much less fanfare, though, is Scott Speed. He was 35th

in points at the midway point of last year, and currently sits

24th. But because of the disarray at Red Bull Racing – star driver

Brian Vickers is out the rest of the year receiving treatment for

blood clots – the team gets more attention for what’s not going

right than it does for Speed’s improvement.

On a broader scale, it appears that RCR and Joe Gibbs Racing

have improved their overall organizations to the point that they

can now compete with Hendrick Motorsports. Toss Kurt Busch of

Penske Racing into the mix, and there are some very serious

contenders to Jimmie Johnson’s four-year hold on the Sprint


JGR, with seven wins between Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, has at

times this season appeared to be the most dominant organization.

But Hamlin and Kyle Busch are streaky, and neither has the

consistent finishes that Harvick is knocking down.

Kurt Busch has two wins, 11 top-10 finishes and is ranked fourth

in the standings. But as the star driver of the only Dodge team, he

may not have enough support from his Penske teammates or the

manufacturer to mount a serious challenge on Johnson.

And Johnson, by the way, finally silenced that 10-week talk of a

slump by winning back-to-back races before he was caught in a late

20-car accident at Daytona that gave him a 31st-place finish.

Nobody is counting him out in what’s been a year of crossing off

goals on his checklist – he won at Bristol for the first time, and

his win last month at Sonoma gave him his first road-course


Next up is Chicago, considered crew chief Chad Knaus’ “home

track,” and one of only four active tracks where he’s yet to


“We have been very close,” he said. “Things get away from us.

I feel like we’ve got a good chance there, and certainly hope to


Among the biggest disappointments this year has been Juan Pablo

Montoya, who made his first Chase last season and briefly even

flirted with the title. But he’s had no luck at all this year and

has dropped 10 spots in the standings to 21st.

Tony Stewart had a huge lead in the standings at the midway mark

last year, but needed a strong push over the last month to climb to

ninth in the current standings. He’s not yet running for wins,

though. At this point in 2009, he had two victories and an All-Star


“It’s kind of like last year – we had a great first half of the

season, then just kind of fell off. We didn’t really feel like we

were doing anything different. We just weren’t hitting on the

things that we needed to in the fall to keep us good,” Stewart

said. “I think it’s kind of worked the opposite way this year so

far. We just weren’t finding the things to make the car happy. As

time is going on, every week we’re just learning a little more

about what to do to get the feel in the car that I like.”

Stewart-Haas Racing might actually be the most disappointing

team so far this season. Ryan Newman is down eight spots in the

standings and at 15th in points, needs to make up a lot of ground

to make the Chase.

Newman is part of a logjam of drivers fighting for the final few

spots in the 12-driver Chase field. Right now, 251 points separate

Stewart in ninth to David Reutimann in 17th.

Although the intensity will be increased for everyone, the

interest will be on Earnhardt, who can’t escape the spotlight as he

tries to return to championship contention. Although he’s finished

11th or better in the last four races, he was embarrassed that he

lucked into a fourth-place finish after struggling through most of

Saturday night.

“We’re not running good enough to finish fourth, so we’re lucky

to finish there,” he said. “You don’t want to make the Chase on

pure luck, you know? You want to make it because you ran


Now is the time to do it.