WELCOME, N.C. – For the second time in the organization’s history, Richard Childress Racing will head to Daytona for the season opener as a four-car team. Returning to the RCR stable will be driver of the No. 29, Kevin Harvick; driver of the No. 31, Jeff Burton; and driver of the No. 33, Clint Bowyer. But new on the scene is wheelman Paul Menard and crew chief Slugger Labbe, who will run the fourth full-time Chevy entering the stable – a No. 27, Menards-sponsored car.
That’s led to a high level of optimism in the Childress camp, good feelings which come attached with a warning label: they flamed out in ugly fashion back during the team’s last expansion in 2009. But while the talk seems very familiar to those high expectations set two years earlier, Childress points out things are much different these days.
“We’re ready for a fourth team this year,” Childress said with confidence as he began Tuesday’s media tour event (Jan. 24) in Welcome, N.C.
The car owner surely knows the consequences if they aren’t. When RCR expanded to four cars in 2009 with driver Casey Mears, it was clear the team was unprepared for the additional load. Despite optimism and what seemed to be perfect timing, Mears never came close to expectations, scoring only four top 10s and finishing 21st in the season-ending standings. Sponsorship money dried up and the entire organization took a major step back on the competition side – all four teams missed the Chase, with Bowyer being the highest points finisher in 15th.
“I don’t think we were as prepared when we did that fourth team at that point then we are today – we have beefed up our staff,” Childress said. “We thought we could do a lot with some of the same personnel and just add the fourth team [in 2009] – it doesn’t work like that. You have to add a lot more personnel and this time we have. I feel good about our fourth team.”
According to Childress, those additional personnel have been primarily on the engineering side of the sport.
“Everybody learns from their mistakes,” newcomer Menard said when asked why four cars would work now. “The way they did it a few years ago, quite frankly, it failed. They tried to figure out why it failed and have changed some of the processes to make sure it doesn’t fail in the future.
“This is something Richard has wanted to get back to – four cars – and the time is right for it.”
One thing that helps this time is the sponsor dollars and existing crew chief relationship Menard brings to the table – the second perhaps making the biggest difference. Working together at Richard Petty Motorsports, Menard and Labbe already have a solid foundation to work from that will require little time to adjust both at the track and in the shop.
“This is a huge opportunity and to have both Slugger and the whole group with me has certainly shortened the learning curve,” he pointed out. “Any time you switch teams, there’s always an almost awkward stage where you’re trying to get to know the different cultures and how everything operates – [but] this is, by far the most welcoming group I’ve experienced. There’s obviously a lot of racers here, they’ve had a lot of success over the last few years and Richard over the last few decades. We have a lot of pressure on us to perform, but I think we’re fully capable of doing that and exceeding expectations.”
“Paul, coming off the season he had last year, he proved he’s a deserving driver in the Cup Series and it made me proud to get him over here,” Childress went on to say. “Our mission here at RCR, along with the other three drivers is to make him part of our family.”
For RCR teammate Burton, the circumstances surrounding Menard joining the squad make a world of difference, putting the second expansion in a much better position to succeed in 2011.
“When the transition happened to four teams, the first time we weren’t funded quite as well as we needed to be,” Burton explained. “We didn’t have enough staff – we staffed to have four teams, but we didn’t staff to make engineering better, to make pit stops better; we staffed to make them the same. When you have more of something that is the same, it’s usually worse. You actually have to put more investment into areas and you can’t piggy-back everything. I think that was the big difference and we learned a valuable lesson there.”
Moving on from those mistakes, Burton explained Menard and the fourth team are now the right fit at the right time for RCR.
“There are a lot of things going on around the fourth team,” Burton said. “Number one, it happened really, really early. The new team is as prepared as Harvick’s team – number of cars, trucks, people. It happened early enough we could pull the trigger. Having Slugger come on board, that was a good thing, and he brought several of his people. They have some continuity already without having to put people together that had never worked together.”
Aside from the expansion to four teams, Childress and his organization are coming off one of their strongest years in quite some time. Scaling back to three cars for the 2010 season, Harvick led the series standings in the regular season, then finished third in the Chase. Bowyer wasn’t far behind, scoring two wins to finish 10th (even with a 150-point penalty during the postseason) while Burton made the playoffs as well, fading late to come home 12th.
Each team not only contended for wins, but also set themselves apart as a serious threat to the Hendrick/Jimmie Johnson dominance as of late. Looking ahead to the fast-approaching season, Childress even predicted NASCAR would be celebrating an RCR champion at the end of 2011.
“This year is the year to beat Jimmie [Johnson] off that throne,” Childress said. “We were close with Kevin last year, but this is the year to do it. It’s going to be RCR, I feel certain. I’ll make that prediction.”
“Nothing lasts forever in life. His time will run out,” Childress later said about Johnson. “When it does, RCR wants to be there and one of these drivers to win that championship. I just know how hard everyone has worked this winter – we do every winter – I know how prepared our whole company is with all four Cup teams and I just feel if we have a shot, this will be our year to do it.”
“You get a gut feeling and I’ve got that gut feeling this is the year. We’re going to throw everything at it we can, and if we don’t win it, it won’t be because we don’t give everything we’ve got.”
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