Ingram: Richert To Bring TRG Into A New Light
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Talladega, Ala. – There were a lot of jokes about the wind and darkness at the Talladega Superspeedway on Friday, where rain shut down the second Sprint Cup practice early followed by gallows humor about the tornado warnings. “You need a place to stay?” offered Matt Kenseth when asked by a reporter if he planned to spend the night at the track in his motor home.
It was not a laughing matter at TRG Motorsports, where Roush Fenway Racing’s latest customer team was hoping for more practice time with its new Ford before qualifying on Saturday morning. As it stood, driver Andy Lally and new crew chief Doug Richert managed a handful of laps throughout Friday and the results were not uplifting for a team that must make the field on its qualifying time.
In the bigger scheme of the entire season, the longshot TRG team owned by Kevin Buckler, now in its third year of a hand-to-mouth existence in the Sprint Cup, has its best chance to become, in the words of Buckler, “a single car team that breaks out.” The new deal with Roush Fenway puts the team on similar equipment footing as other customer programs by Ford’s NASCAR powerhouse. The hiring of Richert adds a championship-winning crew chief.
If the idea of a Roush customer team breaking out at a restrictor plate race with a rookie driver in his first points race on the track sounds familiar, it should. (See Trevor Bayne in the Wood Brothers Ford at the Daytona 500.)
Alas, the anaology is only an abstract for TRG. Lally earned his racing spurs on board Porsche 911’s as did team owner Buckler, not in stock cars. Unlike the Wood Brothers, the glory for Buckler resides in trophies earned in the 24 hours of Daytona and not the 500. Winning at the Le Mans 24-hour could be described as a crap shoot like Talladega, but that’s where any similarities end.
The first order of business for TRG at Talladega will be making the field. The team barely had time for
reconnaissance laps in the first practice and finished 44th among the 45 teams entered for the Aaron’s 499. Currently four points behind Germain Racing’s Toyota entries in the team owner points and one position away from the coveted Top 35, TRG was hoping to leave Talladega in the Top 35 in order to concentrate on developing its new Fords instead of having to race it into the field. Instead, it will be time for white knuckles in qualifying among the go-or-go-homers.
While the weather hasn’t been a help, Richert, like team owner Buckler, does not discourage easily. Besides, Talladega is always a crap shoot. “We know we’ve got good equipment,” said Richert. “Andy is doing a good job. We know we have a chance to pull oursevles together and get some pretty good runs. We’ve got to race ourselves back into the Top 35. This is a good place to do that – or fall back even further.”
Richert, 50, is returning to the Sprint Cup after stints at Red Bull Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. following his most recent glory days at Roush Fenway Racing, where he and driver Greg Biffle nearly beat Jimmie Johnson to the latter’s first Sprint Cup championship in 2005. Long before that, Richert was the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s first championship in 1980.
In his new job of coordinating with Roush Fenway, it’s a bit of a homecoming for Richert. “It’s nice because I have worked over there, worked in the system, know the people there,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that are like a little homecoming. Not that much stuff has changed other than we were with the old style cars.”
Richert was feeling especially optimistic about his lastest career move following a victory by Kenseth in Texas last Saturday in a Roush Fenway Ford. On the pit box for No. 17 on Saturday was Jimmy
Fennig. Like Richert, Fennig is a veteran of the head table at the season-ending banquet. Like Richert, now 50, Fennig is old school.
“Jimmy has a lot of the same stuff we have,” said Richert, who will have access to technical help at Roush Fenway and firmly believes that traditional crew chiefs can still get the job done. “I feel like I can do what he’s done. It’s all about the people you got. It’s not just me. You’ve got group engineers, you’ve got aero engineers, you’ve got chassis engineers. You’ve got all of those departments that have to work together.”
The knock on Richert when he was released by team owner Jack Roush after the 2006 season was his lack of training as an engineer. “They were interested in more of an engineering type of crew chief,” recalled driver Biffle of the unexpected departure of Richert. “What happened was we just weren’t as dominant as a company or as a team. You know how things happen, you’ve got to change.”
“We didn’t have the performance like we had in the previous year,” said Richert of his departure from Roush. “It was like turning a light switch on. It got totally dark. Whether it was Jack making a change, whether it was a non-believer on the driver side. Everything has to fit together.”
Lally is fighting a similar perception as the driver at TRG — lots of experience, but not enough in the current scheme of things, which includes the COT chassis. Lally’s raced in the Camping World Truck Series at Talladega, but never in a Sprint Cup car.
When asked the hardest thing about being a true rookie, Lally didn’t hesitate. “Going to a new track each week and racing the best guys in the world at that track,” he said. “These cars drive a whole lot
differently than what I’m used to driving. Rookies in my situation usually have a couple years of Truck and Nationwide under their belts before attempting this. Now it’s feet to the fire, see what you’ve got. It’s a little on the crazy side.”
Despite losing crew chief Jay Guy prior to last week’s Texas race, Lally made some progress under the guidance of interim crew chief Paul Clapprood, turning some competitive times in his final two stints at the Texas Motor Speedway with one of the team’s new Fords — after qualifying agains the go-or-go-homers.
“The nice thing was the laps came relatively easily,” said Lally. “We found a sweet spot on the car and it worked well. We were able to turn some decent laps and pass some decent guys. Up until then we had some really bad luck with a blown right front tire and one or two missed calls in the pit lane.”
Under thundering spring skies, near darkness before 5 p.m. and eyes cast for possible funnel clouds due to the tornado warning, things were not exactly looking up for TRG at Talladega. But as Scarlet O’Hara once said in Gone with the Wind (certainly an ironic phrase on this day on the plains of Alabama) tomorrow is another day.
That’s been the theme for Buckler and his plucky TRG team going on three seasons now in the Sprint Cup.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.No Comment