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
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
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,”
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
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
“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.