RCR's offseason gains pay dividends early

BY foxsports • February 22, 2010

Just as the sun sets in the West and Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker can see Hollywood from her backstretch, it was no great surprise that Jimmie Johnson scored his fifth win in Fontana -- his hometown track.

The real story in California was the continued resurgence of Richard Childress Racing.

All three RCR drivers led laps and had a shot of winning Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Last year only Clint Bowyer finished in the top 20 in the Auto Club 500.

Kevin Harvick, who finished second on Sunday, left the track at the top of the standings with a 19-point lead over teammate Bowyer. Bowyer’s eighth-place finish in Fontana was stunted by excessive debris landing on his car’s grill which led to his engine overheating. Third-place finisher Jeff Burton led the most circuits amongst the team — 46 laps.

For RCR’s senior driver, it was his fourth top-five finish in the last six races — further proof that Childress’ decision to shake up his crew chief/driver lineup was a necessary and positive decision. Crew chief Todd Berrier has lit a spark under Burton since last fall. The move enabled Scott Miller, the former chief of the No. 31 Chevrolet, to focus on research and development — an area that had lost focus over the course of last year and fallen behind the competition.

Certainly, not winning a race last year and having Childress’ three franchise drivers missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup was a wake-up call, particularly since at least two drivers had qualified for the postseason in the three seasons prior to 2009. And horsepower wasn’t the issue. Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines offered plenty of oomph to Nos. 42 and 1 at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Montoya crowed about his engines from the start of the team’s transition from Dodge to Chevrolet. And his cars were continually outshining the RCR contingent.

Harvick, who also uses Childress power for his own teams in the Nationwide Series, insists the ECR engine package is the best in the garage.

“Motors are the best thing that we have going for us,” Harvick said. “They’re real reliable, they make a lot of power and they’re constantly pushing forward and that’s one of the things that we’ve struggled with in the past is getting to a point and not continuing forward and the engine department doesn’t do that. They push forward every week.

“They’re constantly looking for more power and more technology and things to move forward. In our competition meetings we honestly don’t even talk about engines anymore because they’re just such a non-factor for us, they just keep clicking along and do a really good job.”

Childress was forced to work on the cars — creating lighter bodies and discovering the proper front-end geometry that would enable the cars to turn better through the corners. Despite NASCAR’s testing ban at sanctioned tracks, the company sought out venues to shake down cars such as Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando.

“We felt good about what happened in the fall, over the winter,” Burton said. “Until you start racing, you don’t know where you are honestly. You feel good about it. I had quite a bit of confidence coming in.

“But until everybody gets out here and they’re going to give somebody a trophy, you don’t really know where you stand. I expect to run well.”

After the season opener, Childress joked that he won the Daytona 500, the Daytona 510 but his engine won the Daytona 520 when Jamie McMurray won the Great American Race. Although it has been 42 races since a Childress car has won a Cup points race (Burton at Charlotte in Oct. 2008), running up front is the first step to a breakthrough. In the first two races of the season, Childress cars have been among the class of the field.

Going forward, Harvick’s main concern for the organization is not to become complacent again. With the forthcoming rule changes facing teams as the sanctioning body transitions from the wing back to the spoiler, teams that adapt the quickest will remain atop the speed chart and the point standings. The key is to find consistency and not panic.

“I’m going to do my job and that’s to drive the car,” Harvick said. “There’s so many unknowns this year as far as what’s going to happen when we switch to the spoiler. I think that’s going to throw a whole monkey-wrench in there. For us, it’s a matter that we’ve been together for a while and understand what we’re talking about amongst each other and feel like we’re heading down the right path. There’s no way to tell until you get in there and start racing.

“These first four or five races or whenever we take the wing off are not really a fair judgment. You’re looking at 10 races in before you really know where you stand. You’re either going to be really happy or really sad because it’s going to be really hard to turn it around 10 races into the season.”

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