As Richard Childress announced major changes to Casey Mears' and Kevin Harvick's Sprint Cup programs Wednesday, the immediate reaction could be summed up in just one word:
With both cars outside the top 12 eight races into the season, Childress decided to switch everyone but the driver and race spotter for his No. 07 and No. 29 teams. As a result, both cars get new crew chiefs, over-the-wall crews, in-house engineers, hauler drivers -- pretty much anything you can think of -- beginning the Monday after Talladega.
"Our main objective has always been to have all four of RCR's teams qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup," Childress explained in a press release announcing the switch. "Neither team has had the success this season that we know they're capable of, so we decided it was time to make a change to improve the two teams and the overall strength of RCR. We feel this change positions us to achieve that goal."
While the adjustments aren't as big in Mears' world -- he's just eight races into his first season with RCR -- they're likely to rock nine-year veteran Harvick. Only Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have a longer driver/crew chief relationship in the Cup Series than Harvick and Todd Berrier, who were paired up way back in March 2003.
In a little more than six years together, they've won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, and finished in the top 5 in the season standings three times. Brought together at a time when Harvick's future with RCR was being questioned, the matchup changed public perception and turned the Californian from a hot-tempered, inconsistent driver into one capable of contending for championships.
But while breaking up is hard to do, the marriage has been headed for splitsville for some time. Since winning the Daytona 500 in '07, the team's been shut out of Victory Lane for more than two years, struggling to run up front. Adjusting towards an emphasis on consistency rather than aggression, the No. 29 still squeaked into the Chase the past two years, with Harvick finishing a career-best fourth in 2008. An expert at taking care of his equipment, Harvick's DNF streak was key to keeping him in contention: he finished 81 straight races, beginning in 2006 and lasting until he crashed out at Fontana in February.
However, the key stat during that period is laps led. Harvick's paced the field for 472 laps since the start of 2007, but only nine this season. Compare that to perhaps his best year on the circuit -- 2006 -- when Harvick led 895 circuits, won five times and came within 78 points of besting Jimmie Johnson for the title.
The breaking point for Harvick and Berrier came over the past few weeks, when their longtime strength -- short tracks -- quickly became their biggest weakness. An average finish of just 23.7 at Bristol, Martinsville, and Phoenix dropped the team to 16th in points and left it with just two top-10 finishes in eight races this year.
For a team that's supposedly the flagship program of this four-car organization, that's unacceptable. And whether Harvick likes it or not -- he has, in recent years, tried to distance himself from RCR's past with a new sponsor and a different attitude -- he'll never truly escape the legend that still lurks behind the No. 29. As Harvick is fully aware, his car once had a No. 3 painted on the side, and was driven by a seven-time champion -- arguably the best driver of the sport's modern era. And the two-year streak outside of Victory Lane is by far the longest for Dale Earnhardt's former team since the Intimidator took the wheel himself back in 1984.
"No matter what the colors, GM Goodwrench and Dale Earnhardt and Richard, are all the people that got RCR to the point that it is today," Harvick said after winning at Daytona in '07. "But winning is what makes the shadow less, and being successful on the racetrack and making things happen. That's what makes it less."
The crux of it all is Harvick hasn't been winning -- and when he doesn't, that shadow begins to creep back in. Childress' attitude the past few years has been one of patience, with driver Jeff Burton leading a focus on bringing the car home in one piece, allowing his teams to go 6-for-6 on making the Chase the last two years. But when you bring up the name Earnhardt ... you can't help but wonder how "patient" the former champ would have been under this scenario. Chances are there would have been changes made no matter how many top-10 finishes and fancy driver ratings were getting racked up.
Ironically, Harvick's teammate Mears has been living under a different type of shadow, his famous name credited for getting him top-tier rides despite only one Sprint Cup victory in six years. But while uncle Rick was an Indy 500 champ, the Mears pedigree never quite included stock car success -- something critics of the Californian don't ever make the connection to.
Still, for Mears it's clear the time has come to step up. Despite driving a car that finished in the top 5 in points each of the past two seasons, he has yet to finish in the top 10 through eight races in '09. Those types of results are what leave you looking for work at the end of the season.
But in the end, this change is all about Harvick and the role he continues to play within the RCR organization. In the past few years, the man desperate to establish his own identity in Earnhardt's ride has instead shared the man's entrepreneurial spirit, developing self-owned teams in the Nationwide and Truck Series that are highly successful. The difference is that it's been a tougher balancing act for Harvick. While Earnhardt finished second in points in 2000 running his two-car Cup program on the side, Harvick hasn't been able to match that. Now, with his relationship with Berrier put to pasture, he's finally being held accountable for struggling in a ride expected to contend for a championship.
The only question is why the change didn't happen sooner.
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