Wednesday, February 11, 2009

15 Years Later, Can RCR Claim First Title Since Earnhardt's Last?

By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The last time Richard Childress Racing fielded a Sprint Cup championship team was 1994, when the late Dale Earnhardt claimed his seventh and final Cup title.

Since then, arch-rival Hendrick Motorsports has won seven titles in the ensuing 14 seasons, while Childress' best finish in that period was second – by Earnhardt in the final full season (2000) before his tragic death in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001.

The closest any RCR driver has ever come close to that title was Clint Bowyer, who finished third in 2007.

But based upon last season's outcome, when RCR drivers finished fourth (Harvick), fifth (Bowyer) and sixth (Jeff Burton), 2009 could be the year that the Hendrick stranglehold on the championship – particularly Jimmie Johnson winning the last three titles – could be broken by a Childress driver.

"There's absolutely no reason why an RCR driver can't win the championship this season," Harvick said. "We have all the tools here, we have the talent, great drivers and great crew chiefs. We're as close as we've ever been to winning the championship.

"In order to get that championship, we have to make every area of the company just a touch better. Everybody's on the same page and knows how we want to work."

While so much attention was placed upon Johnson and his battles with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, the RCR trio flew under the radar most of the season. What makes their collective finish all the more surprising is that Harvick failed to win even one race last season, while Bowyer had just one win and Burton had two.

Look for that to change in 2009. With the addition of Casey Mears as RCR expanded to a fourth team for the first time in the organization's history, it only makes the quartet of drivers all that much stronger individually and collectively.

While other teams have drivers that talk the talk about helping teammates, few walk the walk as much as RCR does.

"It's an all-for-one and one-for-all proposition for us," Harvick said. "We all work off each other very well."

Added Burton, "If one or two of us is having a bad day, we can still do things to help and pick up the other guy that's having a good day. If we can't win, we'll do all we can to help them win or get a good finish. That's what being a good teammate really means."

And being good teammates is particularly important in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. If they can avoid trouble during the first 199 laps, don't be surprised if you see an RCR train of Harvick, Burton, Bowyer and Mears steamrolling together to the checkered flag on the final lap.

Harvick, who won the Budweiser Shootout last Saturday, is seeking his second 500 win in three years. Few can forget his thrilling come-from-behind win, beating Mark Martin by a half-fender, to win the 2007 Daytona 500.

"We think we have as good a chance, if not a better chance, to win the 500 this year than we did in 2007," Harvick said. "That year was a bit of a surprise. This year, we know we can win it. It's just about doing it."

But winning the 500 is not the end-all, be-all for Harvick. While he'd love to win the Great American Race for a second time, the bigger picture of a good season overall is more important.

"In our case, we need a year like we had in '06 of winning a bunch of races and that consistency all in one year," Harvick said. "It makes for long weeks when you're not running good. Luckily, we didn't have too many of those weeks last year.

"And if we can have more of those weeks this year and add a few wins and make the Chase again, we could be right there at the end."

Burton, Bowyer and Mears are also looking at the bigger picture, but none of them has what Harvick has: a Daytona 500 win – and that weighs on their minds.

"I have more years behind me than I have ahead of me and the more the years that go behind me, the more I appreciate the Daytona 500," Burton said. "I've been lucky. My list of big races I have filled out pretty well. However, this one I haven't."

But while Burton said he wouldn't call his overall career a disappointment if he never won the 500, he still is thinking about what it will take to get to victory lane on Sunday.

"Every lap is an adventure," Burton said. "My view on the world is that I live and make my living one corner at a time, one straightaway at a time. When I approach the Daytona 500, I'm not thinking about 500 miles, I'm thinking about one-quarter mile at a time.

"So to me, I don't look at a race as a race, I look at a race as thousands of little races. Every corner is an adventure, every straightaway is an adventure. Every time I get in the car it's a new beginning."

Mears comes into this season as the new kid on the block, having joined RCR after two seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, and four seasons at Chip Ganassi Racing before that.

But unlike other newcomers to a different organization, Mears is several steps ahead of the competition. He has inherited Bowyer's entire team, including crew chief Gil Martin, while Bowyer will have a brand new team and crew chief (Shane Wilson).

The reason for the switch in teams is pretty much due to sponsorship: Bowyer moves to the No. 33 Chevy sponsored by General Mills, while Mears inherits the No. 07 Jack Daniels Chevy. General Mills wanted Bowyer over Mears to be its spokesman in NASCAR, hence the change.

Mears will be under great scrutiny because he never really had more than mediocre seasons at CGR and Hendrick. He's never made the Chase and has finished no higher than 14th in a season.

"In a lot of ways, I think this might be a little bit of a blessing in disguise," Mears said. "I really feel like I'm at a place that I need to be now. It's weird how things happen. I don't want to put the cart before the horse at all. We've still got to have success. We can still go in the tank just as easily as we can go good. But I still feel we have a great opportunity to do well.

"My realistic goals are to win some races and to make the Chase. And if we're in that Chase, we're thinking about championship. I'm going on my seventh year in the sport. I'm not here to run around 15th. That's not my goal. I'm here to win."

Bowyer, meanwhile, is optimistic that even driving for essentially what is a brand new team, all the gains he achieved the last two seasons will not go by the wayside as he moves to the No. 33 Chevy.

On the contrary. He feels that given a little time and chemistry building, he and his new team can be just as successful – if not more so – than his former No. 07 team.

"It's going to take time, I'm not going to lie," Bowyer said. "I'm a realist that it'll take a little bit of time to gel and learn each other, but I really feel this is a combination that can be successful.

"I thought about it during the off-season and being nervous about leaving your group of guys, but if you look at (the late) Dale Earnhardt, he won championships with quite a few different crew chiefs. I think that shows you can do it. We all have to work at it."

How RCR fares in 2009 could set the tone for the next several seasons to come. If it is able to break HMS's stranglehold on winning championships, it could soon be the pursued rather than the pursuer.

"We hope that our preparations will pay off, Burton said, speaking of his team, but just as easily could be speaking about all four RCR teams.

"I know that I can't ask for anything more out of my team," Burton added. "I think we put as much effort in as we possibly could. We just have to hope that all our work will be good enough in the end."

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