DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aligned side-by-side, NASCAR’s hierarchy is parked for all to see. Each race weekend, team haulers are positioned in the garage based on performance.
When the trucks arrived Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway to begin the new season, reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s hauler led the parade, followed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Then came the Team Penske trucks. And Joe Gibbs Racing and three other organizations before the RCR trucks could park.
To walk from the Childress haulers to Johnson’s at the front of the field takes 136 steps. It’s a path that leads by exhaust-spewing cars, rumbling engines, scurrying crew members and gazing fans. Admittedly, some might take a few more steps, some not as many. But those steps more than anything measure where RCR is as it begins a critical season with Sunday’s Daytona 500.
A proud organization, which began with a headstrong driver and rocketed to prominence with an icon in the No. 3 car, has seen its place in the sport decline from its halcyon days.
“He and Dale Earnhardt, they were the standard,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said of Childress. “When I first started, I didn’t think anybody would ever beat them.’’
Now, the organization is mired in a three-year winless drought, its longest since 1983. Richard Childress Racing faces a challenge to remain competitive against Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs, which have combined to win 80 percent of the last 56 Cup races.
While teams are known to go through cycles where they’re not as competitive — Gibbs won two races in 2014 before winning 26 the next two seasons — it is rare for an organization to go multiple years without a win and return to a spot among the elite.
Ten organizations have won since RCR’s last Cup victory, which came 109 races ago at Phoenix International Raceway in Nov. 2013.
“It’s not cool,’’ Ryan Newman said of his and RCR’s winless droughts. “You take it personally, and you fight harder.”
The battle cry is to win now, a feeling spread by car owner Richard Childress and passed to every executive, driver, crew chief, mechanic and employee.
“I can promise you the winless drought is keeping him up at night,’’ said NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, who drove for Childress from 2004-13, about his former boss. “He wants to win in the worst way. I’m sure the wick is turned up pretty high.’’
Nothing else matters for an organization that once was so used to winning.
HALL OF FAME CAREER
Richard Childress was among the independents who drove in NASCAR and never had the same backing as the sport’s stars.
All but raised at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Childress set out to drive when he was old enough. Sometimes just getting to a race was as much a challenge as racing.
Wife Judy recalls one time when it didn’t look as if her husband would be able to drive at Charlotte. His windshield was broke and he needed a replacement to compete. A search for a replacement proved futile. Childress rented a car and removed the windshield so he could put it on his car to race. After the race, he put the windshield back on the rental car and returned it.
While determined, Childress’ success was limited. As Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty and David Pearson won, Childress scored only three top-five finishes in 187 career starts in NASCAR’s premier series.
Childress realized he would be better off putting someone else in his car. The driver who replaced him in 1981? Dale Earnhardt.
The union lasted 11 races before Earnhardt went elsewhere for the 1982 season and Childress hired Ricky Rudd.
Two years later, Earnhardt joined Childress, forming one of the greatest teams in NASCAR history. They combined to win six championships and 67 races before Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
After Earnhardt’s death, Richard Childress Racing went through a transition period. The organization won only one race from 2004-05. The team recovered and won 16 races from 2010-13 for its best four-year stretch since the mid-1990s with Earnhardt.
Since, though, Childress has not been back to Victory Lane in the Cup Series.
How does an organization struggle to win after having so much success for so many years? It’s never an easy question. Rule changes can throw teams off. Sometimes another organization or manufacture finds something that gives those cars extra speed. Or it could one of many other things.
Sometimes success can hide the truth.
Three years ago, Newman nearly captured the championship despite not winning a race. The old Chase format rewarded consistency. While the Childress cars weren’t the fastest, they could challenge for a crown with a steady performance.
Dr. Eric Warren, RCR’s director of competition, admits that thinking would impact the team later.
“It kind of masked the fact that we lost that kind of ability to close out and get some wins,’’ he said.
“We’ve … had a lot of discussions over the winter with the crew chiefs and everything else that when I’m in that fifth or sixth place in the race, those moments when you’ve got to make the right kind of calls, we need to not be trying to protect a top-five finish.’’
There have been other issues as well. Austin Dillon needed time to adjust to the Cup series after joining in 2014. The organization needed to find the right people for the right jobs. The cars weren’t as strong.
Childress began to see some signs of progress last spring even after Newman crashed in a test at Pocono when a tire went down. The team had been trying some new suspension geometry. They used what they learned at Pocono in August.
Dillon, who had never finished better than 13th at Pocono, hounded leader Kyle Larson in what was viewed as a race to halfway with rain the area that day. Rain eventually arrived, allowing Chris Buescher to score the surprise win for Front Row Motorsports. Although Dillon finished 13th, he spent more than 89 percent of the race running in the top 15. Only three other drivers were in the top 15 more. One was his teammate Newman.
Richard Childress Racing took what it learned there and debuted new cars at Charlotte in the playoffs. Dillon advanced to that second round but wrecked after he was hit from behind by Martin Truex Jr. on a restart. Dillon had taken two tires on the pit stop during that caution while the rest of the field had taken four.
That incident played a role in Dillon losing a tiebreaker to Denny Hamlin to advance to the third round. A couple of weeks later at Texas, Dillon, with a new car, won the pole but wrecked after contact from Kevin Harvick. Newman showed speed two weeks later when he qualified third in the season finale in Miami, another 1.5-mile track, providing signs of progress on those tracks for the organization.
Of course, none of that guarantees any type of success this season.
“We have to work very hard to maintain our confidence and direction in our program and that means looking for incremental goals … and not allowing the ultimate prize that we’re trying to get to become overwhelming,’’ said Luke Lambert, crew chief for Newman. “If you want to climb Mt. Everest, you’ve got to do it one foot in front of the other.’’
PUTTING THE PUZZLE TOGETHER
In race shops full of cars, equipment and tools, it is the people that many say are the greatest commodity. Richard Childress Racing made a couple of key additions late last year.
Sammy Johns, a former crew chief and team executive, was hired to be the team’s operations director. Mark McArdle had held the position until leaving in Dec. 2015. His position was not filled but absorbed by Dr. Eric Warren.
“We missed that spot,’’ Warren said, noting the additional duties he had while also directing the competition efforts.
The team also added former crew chief Matt Borland to return to that role for Paul Menard. Borland is the third crew chief Menard has had since July 2016 as the organization seeks to find a way for that team to excel.
“You’ve got to keep bringing people to the team that are winners,’’ Warren said of the additions. “It’s important because that instinct of, ‘Hey, if I’m not winning, I’m upset.’ You have to have that kind of killer instinct.
“One of the things about Matt coming in is he has a very strong work ethic, been successful in the past. Not to take anything away from Slugger and Lambert, they both have great assets. We needed that, that person that can bridge the engineering side … but also has been a winning crew chief and an experienced crew chief.’’
WAITING TO CELEBRATE
The sport has been waiting years for the No. 3 to return to victory lane in a Cup race.
The number made famous by Dale Earnhardt, last went to victory lane in October 2000. Earnhardt charged from 18th to first in the final five laps to record the memorable victory. After Earnhardt’s death, Childress retired the No. 3 until Feb. 2014 when it returned with Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson.
While the number reverberates with race fans for what Earnhardt did, it has a special meaning for Dillon. When he and brother Ty told Childress they wanted to go racing, he got them go-karts. Ty wanted No. 2 because that was his father’s number when he raced. Austin wanted No. 3. Childress reminded him about the statue of that number because of Earnhardt. Austin told him that he wanted that number because that had been Childress’ number when he raced.
To older fans, the No. 3 always will represent Earnhardt. They eagerly await when that car will return what is to them it’s natural place — in victory lane.
“There’s so many things that could happen this year that would, I think, be really impactful for the sport,’’ said Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip. “The 3 winning a race would be pretty big to me.’’
To do that will take a team effort. Dillon enters his fourth full season in Cup and second full season with crew chief Slugger Labbe.
Dillon said Labbe learned last year what type of motivation works best for Dillon.
“I think he’s constantly giving me a little bit of a push, but it’s respectful,’’ Dillon said. “It’s not like a pump-you-up kind of push because he knows I’m already motivated. I think that’s where, when we first started, that’s where he thought he’d have to motivate me, but then he quickly learned I’m really motivated in everything I do.’’
TIME TO GO
Even as Richard Childress Racing seeks to move forward, Ryan Newman notes that it needs to look behind, if only for guidance.
“I think Richard Childress will sit here and tell you right now that last year we learned a lot of what not to do,’’ Newman said. “If you can take the things that you learned not to do and not making the mistake of doing them again and correct the things that you have done wrong than you should be a stronger team the following year.’’
The time is now to prove it.
“We’ve got to win races,’’ Menard said. “When Richard is mad it’s not a good day. When he is happy, things go well. We are going to do our best to make him happy.”