Richard Childress Racing 2011 preview
Richard Childress certainly knows how this works. He has been here before, entering the NASCAR Sprint Cup season with an organization coming off a hot streak and looking to snare the title.
He has gone down the road of adding a fourth team to his organization before, too. But this time things are different.
Why? Because the organization feels more comfortable with competition changes that have been made to help the team remain in championship form — and because this time it adds a fourth team with a greater understanding of what it takes to bring that team up to everyone else’s level.
On the surface, the situation appears to be relatively similar to when the group expanded and added Casey Mears in 2009. The previous season, drivers Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton had finished fourth through sixth in the standings, respectively. They had earned a trio of wins and looked to be in top form.
But then things went sour in 2009.
Mears’ team was added, and the organization struggled to replicate or even approach the success of the previous season. The highest of the four drivers (Bowyer) finished 15th for the season, and the quartet went winless. They tallied only 14 top fives between them for the year.
Without a doubt, Childress reviewed and considered this before adding a fourth team once more. A six-time championship team owner, he clearly has learned to pay attention to lessons the sport offers and doesn’t make the same mistakes twice. So, when he and the team point to differences in expanding this time, it’s an argument that carries merit.
The similarity is that team is once more coming off a stellar season. Harvick led the standings for much of 2010 before finishing third with three victories and 26 top-10 finishes, 16 of them top fives, in 36 points races. Bowyer finished 10th in the standings despite incurring a 150-point penalty in the Chase and earned two wins. And Burton challenged for victories all year, finishing 12th in the standings with 15 top-10 finishes, six of them top fives.
Now Paul Menard joins the group after a season in which he earned a career-high six top-10 finishes and finished 23rd in the standings driving for Richard Petty Motorsports.
So what is the difference as he joins Richard Childress Racing? Depth.
“I think the engineering and some of the things, that we were a lot more prepared this year,” Childress said. “I don’t think we were as prepared when we did the four teams at that point as we are today. We beefed up our staff; we thought we could do a lot of the stuff with some of the same personnel and just add a team. It doesn’t work like that, you’ve got to add a lot more personnel, and this time we have added a lot of personnel and I feel good about our fourth team.
“Paul coming off the season he had last year, he proved he’s a deserving driver in the Cup series. It made me proud to get him over here. And our mission here at RCR, along with our other three drivers, is to help assist him (to) become a part of our family.”
He’s obviously been a part of the transition at RCR before — but is confident that the team can smoothly add Menard to the lineup without impacting any of the other teams in anything but a positive way.
“I think the thought about having more teams, certainly you want to consolidate, you don’t want to have to have four of something that maybe you could do with two, take advantage of it,” he said of adding teams. “I think (we) tried to take advantage of it too much. I don’t think we had enough staff. We staffed to have four teams, but we didn’t staff to make engineering better, to make pit stops better. We staffed to make it the same. When you have four of something that’s the same, it’s probably worst. You actually have to put more investment into areas. You can’t piggy-back everything.
“So I think ... we learned a valuable lesson there.”
While the transition to a four-car operation will be critical for the team this year, so will its continued improvement. And no one seems anything but confident entering the year.
Childress said he feels that RCR is the team to “dethrone” five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. He came close with Harvick last season but thinks his drivers can take the extra step and close the deal in 2011.
Harvick isn’t making his own predictions, but he exudes quiet confidence in his attitude and remarks entering the season. He’s not jinxing his year, just hungering to get on the track and get the season under way.
“We’re just ready to race,” he said. “I think as we go into the year, we want to be as good as we were last year. We want that trophy. That’s what we’re out to get, and, hopefully, we can accomplish that this year.”
He should be pushed by his own teammates. Burton was one to watch early last season, leading laps and challenging for wins before a series of late-race events sidelined his effort.
He and his Todd Berrier-led team draw motivation from that.
“We put ourselves in position to win a lot of races early, and we just never were able to execute on that,” Burton said. “In a lot of ways, last year was the most fun I’d ever had and it was also the most frustrating year I’d ever had. I feel really good about where we are as a team. I think Todd did an incredible job last year. I think we learned a lot about each other. I’m real excited about the year.
“We didn’t finish the way we wanted to, by any means. For us, that gave us a chance to learn, and I think we’re extremely motivated to go and prove to ourselves that we can be a championship-contending team, and I honestly feel like we can.”
And then there’s Bowyer, who made the Chase, won the opening race in it then was derailed by a penalty following that victory.
Perhaps more than any driver in the field, he’s ready to put 2010 behind him and return to competition.
Together, the close-knit group is committed to a common goal — giving Childress his seventh championship.
As he looks over his group of drivers, Childress thinks this could be his year to win it all once more.
“Nothing lasts forever in life and his time will run, out and when it does, RCR wants to be there with one of these drivers to win that championship,” he said referencing Johnson.
“I just know how hard everybody’s worked this winter – we do every winter – and I know how prepared I feel our whole company is. ... I just feel that, if we’ve got a shot, this will be the year to do it.”