Jeff Burton

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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NASCAR America live at 5:30 p.m. ET: Daytona 500 Media Day, Mario Andretti’s Daytona win

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Today’s 90-minute episode of NASCAR America brings you news and interviews from Daytona 500 Media Day in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Carolyn Manno hosts in Stamford, Connecticut. Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte join the show from NBC Charlotte and Jeff Burton and Marty Snider are in Daytona.

What to expect from today’s episode:

· The green flag on the 2017 NASCAR season drops Sunday, but today, the stars of the sport met the press for Daytona 500 Media Day. You’ll hear from defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, defending Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and several more contenders in the “The Great American Race.”

· Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez look to be in the thick of this year’s Cup Series Rookie of the Year title. How are the newcomers preparing for their first Daytona 500? Jeff Burton sat down with them both to talk about it.

· American racing legend Mario Andretti is an icon in the open-wheel world, but 50 years ago, he captured NASCAR’s biggest event. Ken Squier takes a look at Andretti’s road to the Daytona 500 – which was much longer than most.

If you can’t catch the show on TV, you also can watch it via the online stream at http://nascarstream.nbcsports.com

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you plug-in that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Furniture Row Racing burning ‘midnight oil’ to fix template issues before Atlanta

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  The car of Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER BOATS Toyota, goes through inspection during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
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As soon as qualifying for the 59th Daytona 500 was over Sunday, Furniture Row Racing crew chief Cole Pearn and other team members were Denver-bound.

When their plane landed, Martin Truex Jr. said their goal was to figure out “how things got screwed up and where they went wrong.”

During the first weekend of “Speedweeks,” the No. 78 of Truex and No. 77 of Erik Jones missed significant track time in practice. Both cars experienced failed template inspection multiple times, a result of faulty template grids at their Denver shop, NBC’s Jeff Burton reported Monday.

The template issues resulted in roofs of FRR’s cars being too high and the decklids being too low.

While the issues were on their Daytona cars, Truex said Pearn and company are burning “a lot of midnight oil” preparing for the races that come after the “Great American Race.”

“Yeah, it’s been a big issue,” Truex said Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day. “(They) have been there working on stuff for Atlanta. … They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them, obviously, and we’ve got a good bunch of guys there at the shop, fabricators and such, so we’ll get it straightened out.”

The fixed superspeedway cars resulted in Truex putting up the fourth fastest speed in qualifying. Jones, the rookie who will drive FRR’s expansion car, was 20th fastest.

“It’s just definitely a setback that you don’t want this early in the season, especially for us,” Truex said. “We were building all new cars because we changed the body style this year (to the) 2018 Camry. Obviously going to two cars, that’s a little bit different.”

Inspection failures were a common occurrence for the No. 78 team in 2016, its first season backed by Toyota.

Pearn was suspended for the spring Phoenix race and fined $50,000 after Truex’s car was found to have a roof flap violation during inspection at Atlanta. Pearn had been on probation for a pre-race roof flap violation prior to last year’s Daytona 500.

The team failed post-race laser inspection in consecutive weekends in the regular season finale at Richmond and opening playoff race at Chicagoland, but NASCAR decided not to penalize the team for Chicago. Following pre-qualifying inspection at Talladega in October, NASCAR confiscated left front jack screws.

“At the end of the day, we have to go through inspection and pass just like everybody else,” Truex said. “The rules are the same for everyone, and obviously we’ve had our issues in the past. But I think it’s funny when you talk to Cole, he gets so angry about it because he’s like, everybody thinks that there’s this master plan, and we’re like these guys that try to get everything past NASCAR. Well, it’s really just not the case. It is what it is, but hopefully they’ll get it fixed, like I said, and we won’t have any issues going forward.”

Truex and the rest of Furniture Row Racing return to the track Thursday for practice and the Can-Am Duel.

NASCAR America: How will drivers adjust to new stages, points enhancement?

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With the advent of the new stages and enhanced points format in all three of NASCAR’s professional race series, how will drivers have to adjust their strategies in Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500?

On Tuesday night’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analyst Jeff Burton and NASCAR Talk’s Nate Ryan were live from Daytona International Speedway and discussed potential outcomes and strategies and which drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series may make the adjustment better than others.

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Watch NASCAR America Live at 5:30 p.m. ET: Dale Jr., Xfinity 2017, Matt Tifft documentary

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America airs from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by a documentary on NASCAR Xfinity driver Matt Tifft from 6:30 to 7 p.m. ET.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman from our Stamford, Connecticut studio, while Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan join us from Daytona Beach.

On today’s show:

* The “Great American Race,” the Daytona 500, is only five days away. We check in with Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan from Daytona International Speedway.

* After qualifying on the front row for the 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. paid a visit to New York City. We’ll see highlights from his appearances on the TODAY Show and the Dan Patrick Show.

* The XFINITY Series season starts this Saturday in Daytona. With the departure of 2016 champion Daniel Suarez and the restriction on NASCAR Cup regulars, which driver will take advantage and be the one to beat this season?

* Parker Kligerman will jump into the iRacing Simulator to show us the challenges of racing on the high banks of Daytona.

If you can’t catch the show on TV, you also can watch it via the online stream at http://nascarstream.nbcsports.com

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you plug-in that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Follow @JerryBonkowski