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RCR tries to stay competitive as economy takes a toll

These are tough days at Richard Childress Racing. Last November at Texas, I met with Childress to discuss the state of the U.S. economy and its impact on NASCAR. Something that he said -- really, something that he kept hammering home -- during our conversation recently occurred to me while I was perusing the current standings (no RCR driver ranks higher than 15th).

"We have to stay competitive. That's not an option, not to stay competitive. Whether it's more hours for individuals, or whatever you've got to do, we don't have an option but to stay competitive...The resources will be even more limited, and that's the reason we've got to stay up in the forefront. We've got four cars and four sponsors next year. We've just got to build on it. If you're competitive, you'll get the sponsors. You have to stay competitive...As long as you stay competitive, you'll be able to secure sponsorship. It's when you're not competitive that companies start looking elsewhere. And that's the reason we have to stay competitive at whatever the cost is."

That's eight mentions of the word competitive. Obviously, he was very concerned about it. And it turns out, he had good reason, because for the most part, none of the RCR teams has been competitive very often this season. Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer have just six top-10 finishes apiece and rank 15th and 16th in the standings, respectively. Casey Mears, in his first year at RCR, is 21st. Kevin Harvick -- Kevin Harvick -- has only two top 10s and ranks 25th.

What's going on here? I think it's a problem that's been building since last year. RCR has a stable of excellent drivers. There's no question about that. But its cars are simply not as fast as the cars at Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Roush Fenway Racing. Burton told me as much last fall after his win at Charlotte. He had no specific reason to cite, saying that the problem was a million little things. In light of that, I think it's fair to say that in 2008, when RCR put all three of its drivers in the Chase, the team overachieved.

Think about it. The last time a RCR car dominated a race -- that I can remember -- was in 2007, when Bowyer rolled to victory in the fall race at New Hampshire. Harvick, who won five races in 2006, hasn't won since his victory at Daytona on the first day of the 2007 season. RCR cars just don't lead that many laps -- fast enough to run close to the front, but not in front. And obviously, the gap between the team and Cup racing's top dogs has only increased.

The day of reckoning is fast approaching. Already there are rumblings that the team could be cut in half -- to a two-car operation -- as soon as next year. The sponsorship deals with Shell (Harvick) and Jack Daniels (Mears) are up this season. While it seems unlikely that Shell would refuse to renew with a star as (usually) bankable as Harvick, Mears is another story. He's got one career Cup victory to his credit, and is on his third team since 2006.

NASCAR has always been a money game, and as Childress stressed last fall, it's become even more of one since the American economy took a turn for the worse last year. Childress is one of the most venerable figures in the sport, but that may not help him make it through this crisis unscathed.

1: Number of top-10 finishes for driver Jeff Burton in the last six Cup races

20.3: Average finish for Burton in the past six races

46: Championship points separating Burton from Juan Pablo Montoya, who currently holds the 12th and final spot in the Chase

15.2: Burton's average finish at the next 10 tracks on the Cup schedule

From the Department of Bad Publicity comes this item from Salt Lake City last Friday. The young man in the surveillance photo on the right -- the one wearing the black long-sleeve Dale Earnhardt Jr. tee -- is in the process of robbing a Salt Lake branch of the Mountain American Credit Union. He walked up to the counter, handed the teller a note demanding money and walked out, apparently in no particular hurry. As one who's never pulled a bank job before (at least, not that you know of), I have to say, he makes it look astonishingly easy.

At this point, I guess I'm supposed to come up with some lame one-liners, but I don't think I could do much better than Jay Busbee has already done over at From The Marbles. I'll let him take us to commercial.

"Of course, when he was preparing for the heist, the robber skated right past the first teller and had to back up to complete the robbery! Or, how about this -- he got there, but a guy in a Kyle Busch t-shirt had already cleaned the place out!"

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