Racing with a purpose: Richard Childress Racing focused on returning to Cup victory lane

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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.

FALLING BEHIND

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.”

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Danica Patrick has a Daytona 500 team: Premium Motorsports

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The first piece of the “Danica Double” has been fully confirmed.

According to the Associated Press, Danica Patrick will drive the No. 7 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports in next month’s Daytona 500. The AP reported that the car will be locked into the field through a charter and will receive engineering support from Richard Childress Racing.

Patrick entered NASCAR driving the No. 7 for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series from 2010-12. For the Feb. 18 race, she also will be reunited with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who helped guide Patrick to her career-best NASCAR finish of fourth in a 2011 Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car will be sponsored by GoDaddy, which announced last week that it would sponsor Patrick in both this year’s Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Patrick has yet to reveal which team she will drive for in the Indy 500, which will conclude her racing career.

She already has made history in both events.

As a rookie in 2005, she became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 before taking fourth (and became the highest-finishing female in the race’s history with a third in 2009).

In the 2013 Daytona 500, she became the first woman to win the pole position and lead a race in NASCAR’s premier series.

New details of road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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CONCORD, North Carolina — The Sept. 30 Cup race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course will be on a slightly altered 2.28-mile circuit.

The race, which airs on NBC, will serve as the conclusion of the first round of the playoffs. It is the first road course race in the 14-year history of the playoffs.

The alterations shorten the original 2.4-mile, 13-turn layout of the circuit. The track is now 2.28 miles and 17 turns after the removal of two of the last three infield turns. There will be more than 35 feet of elevation changes between Roval Turn 4 – the lowest point in the track – and Roval Turn 9, the highest point.

A chicane has also been added to the backstretch right before the entrance of Turn 3 of the oval. The track is adding 440 temporary rumble strips.

The distance for the race will be announced at a later date.

NASCAR held a test on the road course last October with Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Hemric and Jamie McMurray. Busch suggested the elimination of those turns in order to “speed up the track.”

“There are a lot of slow sections with Turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting.”

Truex was part of Monday’s presentation and gave his thoughts on the change.

“The lap times were so long that we were going to be looking at a race that was, I don’t even know how many hours,” Truex said. “Way too long. Basically taking out those two turns cut out quite a bit of lap time off the laps. It’s more so like a regular road course like Watkins Glen … we’ll be in kind of that realm.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said that the race could be held at night if pushed back for various reasons. The race is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. ET.

“We’re working with the track who we believe will have something in place,” O’Donnell said. “Goodyear will be ready with rain tires if we had to make some adjustments.’’

There will be a Goodyear tire test in March and an open test for Cup teams in July.

O’Donnell said NASCAR is “comfortable” with the current layout of the course and that no changes are expected to be made following the tests.

NASCAR on NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton took a few laps around the new layout and shared their thoughts on Facebook Live.

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ThorSport Racing partners with Ford in Truck Series

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ThorSport Racing has partnered with Ford in a multi-year deal in the Camping World Truck Series, the team announced Monday.

The team’s announcement comes a week after it revealed the mutual decision to part ways with Toyota.

“With 23 years in the NCWTS, we look forward to our new partnership with Ford Performance in NASCAR,” team owner Duke Thorson said in a press release. “Our pursuit of wins and championships remains at the forefront of our objectives.”

ThorSport, based in Sandusky, Ohio, had been paired with the Toyota for six years, winning two titles with Matt Crafton.

“We’re excited that ThorSport Racing has decided to switch to a F-Series truck for the 2018 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “ThorSport is a proven championship-level team in the series, and we look forward to providing them the aero and simulation technical support that will ensure they remain at the top level of the Truck Series.”

In 2017, Brad Keselowski Racing fielded the only two full-time Ford entries in the series. That team shut down following the end of the season.

Crafton will be returning to ThorSport for his 17th season – and 14th consecutive – with the team. The rest of the team’s driver lineup will be announced at a later date.

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 16th at Daytona International Speedway.

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D.J. Kennington to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Canadian driver D.J. Kennington will try to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing for the second year in a row, the team announced Monday.

Kennington, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, will drive the No. 96 Toyota sponsored by Lordco Auto Parts and Castrol.

The team, sponsor and driver combination made the 2017 edition of the race, making Kennington the first Canadian driver to compete in the Daytona 500 in 29 years.

Kennington started 28th and finished 36th following a multi-car crash at the start of Stage 2.

“Last year was an awesome experience for my sponsors, Lordco and Castrol, and me,” Kennington said in a press release. “We knew once it was over, we wanted to do it again. (Team owner) Marty (Gaunt) and everybody at GBR is pulling out all the stops for us this year. I’m looking forward to getting back behind the wheel of the Lordco/Castrol Toyota Camry and seeing the difference a year makes.”

The 40-year-old driver has five Cup starts with a best finish of 26th in last November’s race at Phoenix.

Gaunt Brothers Racing does not own a charter, meaning Kennington is not guaranteed a starting spot in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

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