Richard Childress Racing has reclaimed its place among the power teams.


 

Most preseason prognosticators figured that the greatest threat to Jimmie Johnson’s drive for title No. 5 would be Joe Gibbs Racing, or maybe a resurgent Roush Fenway outfit. Three weeks in, it is instead a revitalized Richard Childress Racing that looms largest in Johnson’s rearview mirror. All three RCR cars are in the top seven, including points leader Kevin Harvick. Here’s how RCR made itself relevant again.

By retooling the cars

Last year RCR was like a car dealership with a lot full of lemons. Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Casey Mears (whose '07 team has since been shuttered) were all saddled with multiple cars that had the same inherent design flaws. “When you start the season and you’ve got 40 or 50 cars between the four teams that are built in the wrong direction, it takes a long time to get that fleet of cars turned around and get a new direction technically,” Harvick said. “It was just a huge task to turn everything around.”

Added Harvick, “The one thing we never had to worry about was our engine group, so that was nice.” Now that RCR has found the handle again, they’ve got the horses to run with the leaders. “You cannot ignore the fact that the 31, the 33 and the 29 have a ton of speed,” Johnson said. “So they've worked in the right areas over the offseason and have closed the gap up a ton.”

By restructuring the crews

For Harvick, the long road back started last April. That’s when Gil Martin replaced Todd Berrier as crew chief on the 29. “Gil and all of our guys are the same from last year,” Harvick said. “It’s nice to have a fair amount of time working with those guys. Everybody is on the same page working together.”

Another key personnel change happened in September. Berrier went from Mears’ team to Burton’s, and Burton’s former crew chief, Scott Miller, took over as RCR’s director of competition. “The management changes have been probably the best things that have happened internally,” Harvick says. “The crew chiefs have Scott to go to. Scott has to balance that fine line of deciding, is (a specific change) good for performance based upon what we need from a budget standpoint. That’s always the hardest part – deciding how much money you need to spent in order to make your cars run faster.”

Bowyer said that even the loss of Mears' team, which was parked due to lack of sponsorship, turned out to be a positive. “It was almost a blessing as far as Jeff, Kevin and I go,” Bowyer said, “because we were able to take four teams, combine the best of the best and get down to three teams. I feel like, selfishly, it was a good move for us race car drivers.”

By thinking fast

Can a driver will himself to be faster? Yes – to a point. “Attitude (and) performance feed off each other,” Bowyer said. “You can’t have one without the other.” Bowyer’s father drilled that message into him last year – even if Clint didn’t always want to hear it. “I was down in the dumps all the time and he would say ‘Man, you have to get your attitude right.’ I said ‘Dad, a positive attitude isn’t going to pick me up the three-tenths that I need on the race track.’ But we have all had an attitude adjustment.”

“You've just got to forget what happened last year to a certain degree,” Harvick said. “But you have also got to remember it so you can try to prevent that from happening again.”

With NASCAR looking to switch from rear wings to spoilers later this month, RCR knows it will have to roll with those changes if it expects to maintain its early pave all season long.

“When the spoiler comes, we’d better be ready,” Burton said. “If we get behind, we won’t catch back up any time soon.”

 
NEXT RACE Kobalt Tools 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway

THE LOWDOWN When a fortuitous caution flag helped Jimmie Johnson beat Kevin Harvick at Fontana, Harvick suggested that JJ had a horseshoe, um, on his person. Well, Harvick finished second to Johnson again at Las Vegas, and luck had nothing to do with it. Johnson started 20th, drove a heady race, and his team just plain outworked everybody in the pits. Still, Harvick said, “We can run with them and they know it.” Think if the 48 wins again at Atlanta, Harvick will finally concede that those guys are pretty darn good?

PAST WINNERS
2009 Kurt Busch
2008 Kyle Busch
2007 Jimmie Johnson
2006 Kasey Kahne
2005 Carl Edwards

ABOUT Atlanta
TRACK: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Hampton, Ga.), 1.54-mile high-banked asphalt oval
RACE LENGTH: 325 laps, 500.5 miles
FIRST RACE: 1960
SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup

Quote of Note
“Chad (Knaus) guaranteed me the win. So did Jimmie. So that was going to be good.”
– Team owner Rick Hendrick, whose top driver-crew chief combo backed up their guarantee with a win at Las Vegas.

Where to Watch
Sunday’s pre-race show on Fox starts at noon EST, followed by the race at 1:15.

UP TO SPEED
Atlanta Front-Runners
Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson are the only two active drivers who have finished in the top five at Atlanta in more than half their career Sprint Cup starts (see chart). Fewer than half the drivers on the grid this Sunday have ever finished in the top five at AMS. The latter group includes Elliott Sadler, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and David Ragan, who have no top-fives at Atlanta in 68 combined starts.

Red Faced Over Yellows
The caution lights are supposed to come on for an accident. They’re not supposed to come on by accident. But that’s what happened at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Shelby American, where a pair of inadvertent yellows left teams scratching their heads. It’s another PR hit for the sport just two weeks after the pothole debacle at Daytona. Just don’t tell Chad Knaus that. Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s relentlessly forward-thinking crew chief, had a different take. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in our sport,” Knaus said. “That’s the cool thing about our sport, and I think that’s why it’s so exciting.”

Milestone
Atlanta Motor Speedway turns 50 this year. Fireball Roberts won the track’s first Cup race, called the Dixie 300, on July 31, 1960.

ONE TO WATCH: Jeff Gordon
WHY HE MATTERS: Led most laps at Las Vegas but lost on pit strategy to teammate Jimmie Johnson.
WHAT HE SAYS: “We haven’t dominated like this in a very, very long time.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Has four career wins at Atlanta but none since 2003

WEEKLY STATS
Top-five finishes at Atlanta*

RANK DRIVER TOP 5s/STARTS PCT.
1 Carl Edwards 6/11 55%
2 Jimmie Johnson 9/17 53%
3 Kasey Kahne 5/12 42%
4 Jeff Gordon 14/35 40%
5 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 8/21 38%
6 Tony Stewart 8/22 36%
7 Bobby Labonte 12/34 35%
8 Matt Kenseth 7/20 35%
9 Juan Pablo Montoya 2/6 33%
10 Mark Martin 14/48 29%
11 Jeff Burton 7/31 23%
12 Kevin Harvick 4/18 22%
13 Greg Biffle 3/14 21%
14 David Reutimann 1/5 20%
15 Kyle Busch 2/11 18%
16 (tie) Kurt Busch 2/18 11%
16 (tie) Denny Hamlin 1/9 11%
18 Joe Nemechek 3/32 9%
19 Brian Vickers 1/13 8%
20 Ryan Newman 1/16 6%
*Active, full-time drivers