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Is RCR Set For A Return To Top Of The Dog Pile?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 30 2011

Kevin Harvick gave his team and his organization something to celebrate on Sunday. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Things can go wrong in a hurry in auto racing. Drivers and teams can be top dogs one day, in an animal shelter with Jason Alexander talking about them in television commercials the next day.

Sitting on the cold, stained cement floor and looking up through the wire mesh caging after the first four races of the 2011 Sprint Cup season was Richard Childress Racing.

Just a year after getting all three of its drivers into the Chase, having one of those drivers take a mighty swing at winning the championship, and having another driver win two Chase races, RCR started the 2011 season in perplexing disarray.

Just one driver – its newest driver, Paul Menard – was looking Chase-caliber.

After the fourth week of the season, a week in which Menard was fifth in the standings and none of the other three even close, Jeff Burton summed up the feelings at the RCR operation.

“It’s, obviously, disappointing to be where we are in the point standings,” Burton, who finished 20th at Bristol and was 29th in points. “With as much preparation that we, as a company, did over the off season, it’s something that we couldn’t have done any different. Some of the situations we were involved in were out of our control while some were in our control.”

Some of the cause of the situation RCR found itself in was due to lack of luck. But there were also man-made things like engine problems. And, Burton said, NASCAR-made problems, like a revamped scoring system.

“I’ve said all along that the new points structure will hurt those with poor finishes and we’re a classic example of that,” he said.

But, he said, “Yes, we have a hole to dig out of, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. I believe in this

Kevin Harvick crosses the finish line ahead of Jimmie Johnson Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

team, wholeheartedly, and I really believe that over these next few races, you’ll see us have a complete turnaround.”

Those next few races began last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. And Burton looked prophetic.

Kevin Harvick won the race, 2010 Chasers Burton and Clint Bowyer finished in the top 15 and Menard maintained his place in the top 10 in points by finishing 16th.

But despite the good showing at Auto Club, an air of uneasiness wafted around the team after the race.

“It’s just one of those things,” Harvick said. “When things are going your way, we’ve had four weeks that we hadn’t exactly had everything go right, but our cars have been fast. Today we had everything go right and our car was fast again.”

And team owner Richard Childress continued to sound cautions about the reliability of his engines.

“We did have a problem with a couple of our engines (early in the season), which is the same thing we’re running,” Childress said. “Trust me, I told Kevin in here, If I have to worry about it, you guys have to worry about it. I told them at the driver’s meeting I was concerned.  I was more worried about that than how the cars were going to run.  I knew the cars would run real well.

“There’s some changes.  We think we know what it is.”

This week, it’s off to Martinsville, the short track where the four current RCR drivers have just one victory between them and that victory, by Burton, came in 1997.

Still, Harvick said, “As long as we keep our cars running the way that they are, we can overcome things and we can hopefully capitalize on days when our car is fast enough to win.”

Is one the answer? Or is it 400? At Auto Club Speedway it might be both.

The 2-mile oval in Fontana, Calif. had both its number of races and laps reduced for 2011: One Sprint

Drivers, at least, seemed satisfied with the attendance Sunday at Auto Club. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Cup race, 400 laps.

The result seemed to be a bigger crowd for Sunday’s Auto Club 400. So, at least, said several drivers.

“The crowd looked pretty good,” Kevin Harvick, frequently critical of attendance at the track. “With the weather the way it was this morning, I thought it was great.  Like I said on Friday, sometimes markets just seem that one race is what it’s needed for.  I’m pretty proud about the fact that they had a good crowd today.  They did a good job this weekend.”

“Actually, I thought it looked OK,” Jimmie Johnson said. “We always want a full grandstand.  After a couple years, especially if we come back and the weather is like it’s supposed to be, we’ll probably have a better showing. But I thought today was decent for sure.”

Kyle Busch said, “If the race was Wednesday, it would be really good. Supposed to be 80.  That (cold, wet weather) probably scared off a few of them. Judging the crowd off of previous California events, I thought it was really good today.”

Kyle Busch has put his name along side a couple of biggies. When he got is 20th Cup victory at Bristol two weeks ago, he joined Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon as drivers with most wins before reaching 25 years of age.

Busch, who won’t turn 26 until May 2, said he hopes to pass Petty and Gordon before then.

“There are still some opportunities for some more wins,” Busch said. “Essentially that’s what it tells me. That’s what I read into it when you say I was the highest winner to 25, but now I’m not to 26.

“It’s interesting. It has all come at such a young age, but there have been guys who have been here at a young age, too, who have been just as successful. You say the guys – (Richard) Petty and (Jeff) Gordon – and (Jimmie) Johnson is another one of those guys. He wasn’t quite as young, but when you look at his career and how long he’s been here from 2002 – his rookie year to where he is now – going on 10 seasons, 54 wins or whatever it’s been. He’s a guy you look at and say, ‘Man, he’s done a lot in a short period of time, and five championships and everything else.’ Never finishing outside the top-five or 10 in points, or whatever.

“He’s a guy everybody would like to be if they had their choice and could pick somebody to follow after. We’ll see how things go here in the next few weeks, and next few years and through my career, but all in all it’s been good, so far. There’s plenty more time for it to grow.”

Greg Biffle got his first victory of the seaon this week. Unfortunately, it came on Wednesday and at a drag strip.

Leaving the line at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C. are, bottom to top, David Ragan, John Force, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. (Photo courtesy of Harold Hinson Photography)

Biffle scored the upset victory in a four-wide battle of NASCAR stars versus an NHRA legend at zMAX Dragway during a race held to promote the second annual VisitMyrtleBeach.com NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, April 14-17.

Defending Four-Wide Nationals Funny Car champion John Force welcomed Biffle and fellow Roush Fenway Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and David Ragan to his turf for the four-wide elimination battle in 2011 supercharged Ford Mustang GTs.

Ragan, driver of the No. 6 UPS Ford in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was the driver

with the slowest time on the first pass and the first driver to be eliminated. In an outcome that surprised everyone in attendance, including media and visiting soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., Force was eliminated with the slowest time on the second pass.

“They went out there and they did their job and they beat me,” Force said. “I beat them on the tree but I tried to power shift the car and I screwed up. It was pretty cool being out here with these NASCAR kids, even though I lost big today.”

The final elimination pass left Biffle racing Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. The race was close, but Biffle emerged victorious, winning the final round with an elapsed time of 13.284 on the world’s only four-lane, all concrete drag strip.

“I got lucky because I’ve drag raced in a Mustang before,” Biffle said. “It was pretty neat to get a chance to race against a 15-time champion like John Force. It feels good beating him too. I had a lot of fun out there today.”

Finally, Kimi Raikkonen to NASCAR? And with Foster Gillett? That report sounds like an early April Fool’s gag to me.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 30 2011
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