2012 Team Preview: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress (100 career wins, six career Sprint Cup championships)
Drivers: Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Jeff Burton (finished third, 17th and 20th, respectively, in 2011)
Crew chiefs: Shane Wilson (Harvick), Slugger Labbe (Menard), Drew Blickensderfer (Burton)
Key offseason changes: For the second time in three seasons, RCR has downsized from four Cup teams to three with the departure of Clint Bowyer and a reduction in support from General Mills. However, the No. 33 team will not be inactive for long as a variety of drivers fill the seat before the anticipated full-time arrival of Childress' grandson Austin in 2013. RCR also acquired the teams and assets from Kevin Harvick Inc. to expand the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series side of the roster. Last fall, director of competition Scott Miller parted ways with the company and was replaced by technical director of competition Kent Day.
Overview: RCR has always performed better as a three-car Cup operation. And Harvick is at the top of his game. At 36, he has shed the responsibility of operating KHI and can concentrate solely on winning the Sprint Cup championship. After finishing third in the points standings for two consecutive seasons, Harvick has to be considered the frontrunner for the title. Here's why: The No. 29 team has solid backing from Budweiser and the addition of Wilson as crew chief will provide Harvick with a fresh perspective moving forward.
Harvick has won seven races and posted 25 top-five and 45 top-10 finishes in the past two seasons. Although Harvick has spent multiple weeks at the top of the points standings, similar to Kyle Busch, he has had difficulty maintaining that position in the postseason. Alleviating the distraction of KHI, which was a perennial contender in both Nationwide and Truck competition, should help him tremendously when the Chase for the Sprint Cup rolls around. He won't feel the need to bounce between both garages. Harvick inherited the top RCR pit crew from the No. 33 team during the 2011 season, and rear tire carrier Aaron Schields and jackman Jason Hunt have joined the effort from Burton's crew. So, expect his over-the-wall effort to be stout.
For the first time in Menard's career, he has had a true opportunity to exhibit his talent at the Cup level. With RCR's resources and under the direction of crew chief Labbe, Menard has proven he's much more than a gentleman racer. Menard has shown marked improvement since he was paired with Labbe in 2010. Coming off a breakthrough season that included Menard's first Sprint Cup victory -- in the Brickyard 400 -- and his best finish (17th) in the points standings, the No. 27 team has much to build on for 2012. Menard quadrupled his number of top fives (four) last year and led more laps (82) than he had in the five full seasons that he's been competing at the Cup level. Now the team must find a way to eliminate finishes outside of the top 20. Menard showed during the Chase last season that with finishes of 20th or better, he can make substantial gains in the standings. In the final 10 races, his average finish of 16th vaulted the team from 23rd to 17th in points.
After nearly a decade climbing the ladder at Roush Fenway Racing, Blickensderfer joins RCR as Burton's crew chief. Burton, 44, was in desperate need of a fresh start after experiencing his worse finish in the points standings since 1995. Of course, the No. 31 Chevrolet was plagued by three engine failures and crew chief Todd Berrier was replaced by engineer and aspiring crew chief Luke Lambert 19 races into the season. Burton, who has never been a strong qualifier, had difficulty moving forward, with an average start of 20.7. He led only 94 laps for the year. Burton has asked Blickensderfer to be brutally honest in areas that need improvement. No doubt Blick, the son of a basketball coach, will crack the whip when he sees fit. The pair are testing together for Goodyear at Texas Motor Speedway this week and will join the other Richard Childress Racing teams at Nashville on Monday and Tuesday for a full company test. Burton has inherited the crew that pitted Bowyer late last season for his 2012 effort.
Prediction: Whether you believe in numerology or not, RCR has always performed stronger as a three-car operation. With Harvick leading the flagship team, RCR is looking at its best opportunity to win a championship since "Happy" assumed the driving duties from the late Dale Earnhardt in the renumbered No. 29 Chevrolet in 2001. And he'll have strong support from the Nos. 27 and 31 teams, which both have solid shots at being Chase contenders. With three fully subsidized Cup programs, Childress has a firm foundation for RCR and for the advancement of the future racing endeavors of his grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon.