Richard Childress Racing showing early signs of progress

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Richard Childress Racing was shut out of almost everything last season, from Victory Lane to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and just about everything in between.
A mediocre race team has never been acceptable to Childress, a former driver who had successfully transitioned into ownership of an organization that boasts six Cup championships. So he swapped entire crews, moved around management and hired new people. After a year of numerous moves designed to get his team back on track, Childress is finally seeing tangible progress.
Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer have opened the year with very strong races, putting RCR cars in contention to win late at both the season-opening Daytona 500 and Sunday's race at California. Although RCR is still looking for its first points victory since Burton's win at Charlotte in Oct., 2008, it's become clear the organization will win its share of races this season.
"We feel like the effort we've put in is starting to pay off," said Mike Dillon, vice president of competition. "But we still didn't win a race. We had an opportunity to, and giving yourself an opportunity leads to wins. Saying anything beyond that right now is just like people celebrating on the white flag lap.
"We're just 10 laps in with a long way to go."
But RCR has come so far that their strong start to this season can't go unnoticed.
A year after all four of its teams failed to win a race and missed the Chase - Bowyer at 15th was RCR's highest ranked driver - the organization is now holding down three of the top five spots in the standings.
Harvick is the current points leader with two top-seven finishes this season. He won the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, and might have won the Daytona 500 if not for a final caution. He chased down leader Jimmie Johnson on Sunday, only to bump the wall in the closing laps of his pursuit to cause just enough damage that he had to settle for second place.
Bowyer is currently second in points, just 19 behind his teammate. He too was strong at Daytona, where he finished fourth, but more impressively wound up eighth on Sunday despite three different bouts of overheating.
Burton is fifth in points, 31 back, and coming off a third-place run at California, where he led 46 laps. His 11th-place finish at Daytona is the lowest of the RCR cars this season.
They want more, though.
Bowyer praised RCR's effort after his eighth-place run, but still characterized Sunday as a "frustrating day." What's not lost on Bowyer is just how bad it could have been. When faced with adversity last year, the RCR teams usually crumbled and left the track with yet another sub-par day.
Not so on Sunday, which Dillon noted requires company-wide commitment and is a major achievement.
"It's so easy for little things to ruin the day, and for more than a year, those little things did ruin our days," Dillon said. "But then you look at Sunday, when (Bowyer) overheated three times, overcame it each time and came out with an eighth-place finish. We weren't able to do that as a company a year ago, and that really hurts you. Those types of bad days can really slow your momentum down."
There's no time for that now, not after Childress took the steps to reorganize his race team.
Everything looked great in 2008, when all three RCR cars made the Chase and even flirted with the championship. So there was no reason to reinvent the wheel for 2009, even as the team expanded to four cars with the addition of Casey Mears.
Only it became clear to Childress very early that what worked a year ago wasn't working anymore, particularly not after all the other teams made so many off-season gains. Childress' first solution was a total swap of teams for Harvick and Mears, a move he made in April in a futile attempt to save the season.
When that didn't yield the gains he had hoped, Childress piece by piece began adding a new layer at RCR of key personnel needed to focus on overall improvement. Scott Miller, Burton's crew chief, moved to director of competition and Kent Day joined RCR as technical director of competition.
Will Lind, who spent two years as director of competition, instead shifted to a new role as business director of competition.
"We really needed to create this new layer, because we had people doing all of those jobs before, but it wasn't really in the job descriptions," Dillon said. "It was more like "Well, who is it that we have who does that?' Now we've just pulled it all together. We've always had really good people here. We've always been really proud of our people."

Organizations: Burton's

Geographic location: California, CHARLOTTE, N.C.

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