With three drivers in Cup contention, Richard Childress Racing is giving thesuper teams a run for their money
This is an article from the May 26, 2008 issue
IT HAS beenproven again and again in Sprint Cup racing: Bigger is always better. Afterall, the teams with the most cars, fattest budgets and deepest staffs are theones that consistently win races. This season alone the sport's threeresource-rich superpowers—Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and JoeGibbs Racing—have combined to win eight of the 11 points races. Meanwhile, thesmaller, cash-strapped one- and two-car operations continue to fade intoobscurity, and this lack of parity won't change anytime soon.
RichardChildress, who broke into stock car racing in 1969 as an independentowner-driver, falls in the middle of this great disparity and is determined notto be left behind in the era of big-team dominance. Next season RichardChildress Racing will add a fourth Chevy to its stable, but RCR is already wellinto a growth spurt, which helps explain why it has been the surprise team of2008.
"The teamsthat were beating us all had four and five cars, and I knew I had to move inthat direction to be competitive," says the 62-year-old Childress, who lastwon a championship in 1994, with Dale Earnhardt Sr. driving RCR's only car. Formore than a year Childress courted potential sponsors for a fourth car, andthat search finally ended in April when General Mills agreed to put up about$15 million, which is typically what it costs to run a top car.
This season thethree RCR drivers—Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick—haven't shown theraw speed of Hendrick's Kyle Busch and Roush's Carl Edwards, who have each wonthree races, but no team has been more consistent than RCR. Burton, who issecond in the standings and has one victory, was the only driver to completeevery lap (3,664 total) of the first 11 races. Bowyer, fifth in the standingsand also with one win, completed the second-most laps (3,662). Harvick is ninthin points, but he made more green-flag passes (993) than any other driver inthe top 12 except Burton (1,077). More impressive, no RCR Chevy has suffered amechanical breakdown.
"We're notquite where we need to be in terms of winning a championship, but we're gettingclose," says Burton. "We now have the resources at RCR that it takes towin a title."
Over the winterChildress completed a 93,000-square-foot addition to his headquarters inWelcome, N.C., creating room for a new body shop, an auditorium and agymnasium. He beefed up his engineering staff to 32 (RCR had half that many twoyears ago) and now has a workforce of 450. RCR is still smaller than Hendrick(550) and Roush Fenway (500), but Childress has all the cutting-edge machinerythat can be found in the shops of his rivals. Yet even with all thetechnological essentials, RCR is still a tick behind the Big Three. The RCRdrivers are known for their conservative approach to racing—one reason theyfinish so many races—but if they are to be taken seriously as contenders oncethe Chase rolls around, they may have to change that style.
"The RCR guysare blue-collar racers; they'll take what they're given and not push it,"says three-time Cup champion and Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip. "This is agreat way to race, until the Chase. That's when you have to get your game faceon and go for it. But, hey, that whole team is on the rise."
ONLY AT SI.COMLars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.
Kasey Kahne's victory in last Saturday's All-Star Racein Charlotte was his first in 19 months, but it was not a Sprint Cup pointsrace. Kahne (right), who won six times in 2006, remains one of several bignames who have yet to reach Victory Lane this year in a points-paying event.Here are four more.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Super consistent (eight top 10s in 11 starts), but bad luck and a tendency forhis number 88 Chevy to lose speed on long, green-flag runs have cost him.
Number 24 Chevy has handled poorly in traffic, the same problem that plaguedthe team in 2006. But history is on Gordon's side: He hasn't gone winless since1993.
Hasn't been the same driver since longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser left at theend of 2007. Chemistry with replacement Chip Bolin must improve.
His public pondering over leaving Joe Gibbs Racing has been a distraction forhis team. Don't forget, Stewart has a history of heating up in the summermonths.