Arguably, Richard Childress Racing was the second-best team in Sprint Cup last season, something obscured by the very long shadow cast by Hendrick Motorsports. The challenge for RCR in 2008 is twofold: How does it leapfrog its fellow Chevrolet team to No. 1 and how does it hold off Joe Gibbs and Roush?
RCR and Hendrick were the only teams to put three drivers in the Chase last season, but that's where the comparison comes to a screeching halt. RCR's Clint Bowyer was a distant third, 346 points behind, behind Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and teammate Kyle Busch was fifth. Childress' Jeff Burton was eighth and Kevin Harvick 10th.
Each of the Childress' drivers had one victory, highlighted by Harvick's in the Daytona 500. Hendrick's four combined for 18.
RCR stood pat over the winter in terms of personnel. Continuity in a successful operation is good, but what the team really needed was to expand to four cars and add another quality driver.
Most importantly for Childress, it needs to find more speed at more tracks.
"We were a step off, there's no getting around that," Burton said. "We look at the laps that we led and the times we put ourselves into position to win races and we didn't have the kind of year we had hoped to. We finished ahead in points of some people who actually performed better than we did when you only look at the stopwatch.
"We take pride in ourselves in being able to take advantage of situations that present themselves, but the key is to have cars that are fast enough and drivers that are fast enough so those good opportunities present themselves more often than not."
Bowyer's victory at New Hampshire last year was in then-named Car of Tomorrow, which will be used for the entire schedule this season, but the team didn't perform well overall with it. RCR focused on chassis development in the offseason.
"We worked exceptionally hard on figuring the Car of Tomorrow out," Burton said. "We haven't worked on one type of track, we just worked on the Car of Tomorrow. We worked on trying to figure out and learn as many things as we can about that car so that we can apply that throughout the whole year.
"We feel like for the most part we were a little bit off --not a lot, but a little bit -- and our focus has been making the cars drive better."
Following Ford's Roush-Yates model, Childress and DEI combined their engine departments last summer. The jury seems out on whether they have made any gains in horsepower or handling, and reliability was a serious problem for Dale Earnhardt Jr., then driving for DEI.
Burton didn't exactly give the merged operation a ringing endorsement.
"I think those things (improvement) are in the future," he said. "I believe when we go to California and (Las) Vegas that we are going to see some results. I think we are going to see some results here (Daytona 500). Time will tell. Any time you have a situation where that many things are changing, there are going to be some things that don't work out as well as others. But for the most part, I think we have made some improvements on the engine department and I think more improvements will come."
Bowyer made a major impact last season, his second in Cup, by jumping from 17th in 2006 to the Chase. The 28-year-old from Kansas also made a big contribution to Childress in his second Cup season.
"We put three cars in the Chase, which was a good thing," Burton said. "Clint and the No. 07 team were able to execute better than we were. If you look at the top-fives and laps led and those kind of things, we all three had very similar years. Clint and those guys, toward the end of the year, were performing a little better than the other two teams were, so we all fed off that.
"That is what happens when you have multi-car teams and someone is typically doing better than the other ones. When you do that, then the other teams are trying to catch up as quickly as they can. And the team that is doing well is providing a lot of information to help, because one day it's going to turn around. No one team is always the best team at any company, and having that respect and that ability to compete off each other is real important to overall success."
Bowyer understands that he and the No. 07 team have to prove themselves again in 2008.
"I think that we certainly had a really good year last year," he said. "Does that mean anything this year? No. We have to go back out and regroup ourselves and be the ones to beat again. The thing that makes me most excited about last year is how far we were able to come in a short amount of time and how much we built. I still think we have a lot of room to improve.
"The pressure is there to back it up. At first it was, well, they shouldn't have made the Chase, then it was they'll never be able to run with the Hendrick cars, and then it was well, well, well, well. Now, it's started all over again. Can they prove themselves? That's where the pressure comes from because I want to take my team and go back out and be consistent and do the things that it takes to be inside that Chase and, hopefully, race for a championship."
This will be Bowyer's third season with crew chief Gil Martin.
"You always hear us talking about chemistry and communication between the driver and crew chief," Bowyer said. "I think that is where we came the farthest last year and that's what's going to propel us into the next group of lead drivers."
Harvick slid slightly last season from 2006, when he won five races and was fourth in the points. The 32-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif., has set the bar high for this season.
"I know we are here to race for a championship, so anything less than that would be disappointing," Harvick said. "We've been close. Were close in '03 (fifth) and we were close in '06 and just haven't been able to finish the deal. I feel like we have made improvements to our cars.
"It wasn't like we had to have a major overhaul. We had to have a lot of small things get better. I'm not saying everything is 100 percent right, or our cars are the fastest or slowest. I'm just saying I think we've made strides in the right direction and we're going to work hard to keep it going that way."
With its three drivers and teams that have proven they're capable of winning races and making the Chase, RCR has an outside shot at the championship. Beating Hendrick will be a tall order and it will be a fight to run with Gibbs and Roush.