Compared to the past three Sprint Cup seasons, Richard Childress Racing has been mired in a slump. With 10 races remaining before the Chase, none of its four drivers are in the top 12. Jeff Burton (15th in the points and 46 behind current final qualifier Juan Pablo Montoya)and Clint Bowyer (16th and 65 back), still have a chance, but Casey Mears (21st and 300 back) and Kevin Harvick (25th and 380 back) really don't.
RCR's situation is a shocker. It closed out 2008 with Harvick fourth, Bowyer fifth and Burton sixth in the championship. They all made the Chase in 2007, too, and Harvick and Burton were in it in 2006. RCR has been Chevrolet's second-best team after Hendrick in recent seasons.
So where did the organization's performance go? Its expansion to four cars could explain part of it, with Bowyer moving to a new group led by crew chief Shane Wilson, and crew chief Gil Martin's group going to Casey Mears. But neither should have impacted Harvick and Burton, whose teams were left intact. Then, in early May, the swoon already in full effect, Childress swapped crews, moving Martin to Harvick, and crew chief Todd Berrier to Mears. The shakeup hasn't delivered anything better. The fourth team isn't the root of RCR's problems.
It seems probable that RCR's technology has stood still as other organizations have made gains. Stewart-Haas, with that Hendrick equipment, sit first with Tony Stewart and sixth with Ryan Newman in the points. Penske has jumped up, with Kurt Busch in fourth, and Dodge has a second Chase contender in Kasey Kahne in 13th, three points behind Montoya. Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip Racing's David Reutimann is 14th, 40 back of Montoya. None of the above teams or drivers was in the Chase last year, and all could be this season.
So, the competition has gotten deeper, stronger and more diverse in Sprint Cup, and RCR hasn't kept up. Burton and Bowyer are still threats to make the Chase, but that's a long way from the foregone conclusion they were at the end of 2008.
"The fundamental problem is when you look at the speed charts on a Friday afternoon or a Saturday afternoon in practice, we're not in the top-10," Burton said last week at Infineon. "We're not able to go lay a lap time down that our competition is able to lay down. The No. 33 [Bowyer] the last two or three weeks has been able to do it better than the others, and we think we understand why that is.
"We didn't do a good job this past fall and this winter. It is what it is. The record shows it. We didn't prepare properly and so we're behind. The engine thing is really good right now. We make enough power to win races. We don't go through the corner fast enough to win races. You can win races with less power, but you can't win races with less handling. That's our deal right now is we don't go through the corners as well as the competition."
Translation: RCR's cars need suspension and aerodynamic work. Gains come slowly and they are expensive, coming with the cost of wind tunnel and seven-post shaker rig development. Next comes the building of the new pieces, more spending whether done in-house or outsourced.
RCR confronts these issues with less money than it expected to have, because of General Motors' bankruptcy. GM, borrowing billions from the government just to stay in business, has cut its funding to teams in Sprint Cup and eliminated it from the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. Both GM and the teams it supports make every effort to keep the terms of their agreements confidential.
According to documents filed in bankruptcy court in New York on June 12, RCR had a payment of $2,538,750 due from GM on June 15. The documents filed by RCR attorney's were an objection to the new owners of GM -- the federal government the majority stakeholder -- offering to pay nothing, but wanting to keep the contract in place. RCR is asking to be paid once GM comes out of bankruptcy.
The timing of the $2.5 million payment seems to indicate it is a payment for the second quarter. Assuming a four-payment contract, RCR was scheduled to receive $10.155 million this year. The court documents said GM was not in default, which indicates the first quarter payment was made. Again, assuming the total is correct, GM owes $7.616 million for the rest of the year.
How much RCR will receive is up to the bankruptcy court, but my guess is pennies on the dollar.
Owner Childress addressed the GM issue at Infineon. He didn't disclose any details of the terms of the contract.
"That's all business numbers and business deals," he said. "I don't go around asking people what they're paying y'all. So, that's kind of our deal here. We talked about a lot of different things with GM and are very supportive of them on the track and off the track. I just see some great things for General Motors in the future.
"It's not going to affect our performance at RCR. It's not going to affect our technology. Yeah, we may have to do other things a little differently, but when it comes to our performance and giving our sponsors their return on investment, it's not going to affect any of our sponsors, either."
Childress was asked if GM made the June 15 payment.
"Again, that's personal," he answered. "I didn't ask you if you got your paycheck this week."
RCR has four fully-sponsored teams, each with an annual budget of $15 to 20 million. Losing most of GM's $7.6 million for the rest of the season out of total revenues in the approximately $70 million range aren't devastating, but it certainly hurts. We all know money buys speed in any form of racing, and right now RCR needs more -- much more.