Richard Childress Racing Trying to get back on Winning Ways
Richard Childress Racing is currently in its longest winless streak in team history. The current drought sits at 73 races, going back to when Kevin Harvick was victorious at Phoenix in Nov. 2013.
There is optimism within the camp heading into the new season.
Ryan Newman and Paul Menard both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, but had early exits within the first two rounds. It was the Menard’s first time competing for a championship after joining RCR in 2011.
In 2014, Newman made it to the championship race at Homestead, still having a legitimate shot at the championship. Unfortunately for the No. 31 crew they came up one-point short of beating Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team for the championship. The Indiana native set his personal best finish of second in the championship standings in his first year with RCR.
Last season, Newman began the season with a lot of raw speed. In the first five races, he posted four top-10 finishes, including three top-fives, with a best finish of third at Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Following the ninth race of the season, momentum began to swing in the wrong direction. Crew chief Luke Lambert was suspended following the race at Auto Club Speedway, but appealed. The final decision didn’t come until after Richmond, in which he was suspended for six races, moving veteran crew chief Todd Parrott atop the pit box after he was named the XFINITY Series Competition Director at RCR during the 2014 off-season.
In the first three races, the duo clicked off three-consecutive top-10 finishes, but then fell off the map with finishes of 18th, 39th and 18th respectively. Lambert came back at Daytona in which the team recorded an eighth-place finish.
It was a tale of two halves of the season for the No. 31 car.
In the first 18 races, the team posted 10 of its 15 top-10 finishes. In the second half of the season, the team fell off the map, but made it to the second round of the Chase when Newman was eliminated after Talladega in a controversial finish.
“We’ve got to win,” Newman told Speedway Digest. “That’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to win for the Chase, but you’ve got to win for momentum on your team, your organization, everybody involved. We saw last year because of our alliance with the No. 78 car how big that momentum really is when you do get that victory.”
In order to win a race, Newman will need to spend more time at the front of the field. He is coming off a season in which he led just 20 laps, and in two seasons with RCR, he had led a mire 61 laps. He has been consistent, but in order to put the Caterpillar Chevrolet in Victory Lane, the team needs to lead more laps and contend for top-five finishes on a regular basis.
“After finishing second two years ago, we really expected it (win) to happen last year and it didn’t,” Newman said. “We were close several times, but we didn’t lead enough laps to put our self in position to do that. That’s really what we need to work on is just putting our self in a better position to win and that’s leading laps and the guys in the pits did a good job of stepping up.”
Newman hasn’t won a race since he won the Brickyard 400 in 2013 when he beat Jimmie Johnson. That was when he was with Stewart-Haas Racing, but the move to RCR has had its positives and negatives.
“Everybody on the team has to do a perfect job and then you might still get beat by ability by some other team,” Newman said. “There are so many variables in our sport that you have to have everything right on a given day to put yourself in contention and you still might get beat.”
Menard, on the other hand, is coming off what would seem to be a career year. That is not the case.
The No. 27 car finished inside of the top 10 just five times in 2015, down from a career-high 13 in 2014. Two of those top-10 finishes were top fives, but he led just 10 laps on the season, the lowest amount he’s led in a single season since 2009, when he was a part of Yates Racing.
His best finish of 2015 in May at Talladega, where he finished third and had a shot at the victory until the tri-oval, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was victorious blocking from the bottom of the track all the way to the top.
One positive for the organization was that Menard completed 98.7 percent of the laps on the season, with an average finish of 17.1. Though he didn’t record the top 10s necessary to be competitive in the Chase, he is coming off his highest finish in the championship standings of 14th, beating Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth in the 10-race battle.
Menard’s goals are set for this season. He wants to be better than last season, but also make the Chase for the second-consecutive year.
“Our plan is to be in the Chase again and advance further,” Menard said. “When the Chase started last year we were not at our best, we were probably at our worst all year. We got eliminated in the first round.
“Justin is in his second year as being crew chief. He’s got more experience under his belt. We basically have the same team together as last year.”
The team is nearly the same except for an engineer change during the off-season. The same pit crew that pitted Menard’s car in the Chase will be back on the team after shuffling over to his car midseason.
One thing that has eluded Menard from his Cup career is a victory outside of the 2011 Brickyard 400.
It is strange that as to why Menard made the Chase last season, as it could be argued that it was his worst seasons in his tenure at RCR. There is reason to optimism for the team as he seems to always get off to hot starts then collapses in the summer. He doesn’t think that will happen in 2016.
“I feel like it can be any given week,” Menard said. “Especially toward the end of last year we hit on some things that I felt really good about. I feel like we can roll into Daytona with as good of a shot as anybody. When we get to Atlanta which is the low-downforce and the first true test of the season everybody has a clean slate.”
The other driver that yet been mentioned is Austin Dillon. Though he was the lone RCR driver to not make the Chase last season, he led the most laps out of all three teams and seemed to have the most speed throughout the second half of the season.
RCR will look to come out guns blazing in 2016 starting at the Daytona 500. Newman is a former Daytona 500 winner, while Menard and Dillon typically run well on restrictor plate tracks. It would make the season a lot easier for the organization if one of the three drivers wins the Great American Race.
Chip Ganassi Racing Looking to Improve on Faster Tracks
Chip Ganassi Racing had a subpar season in 2015. For the second consecutive season neither Jamie McMurray or Kyle Larson were victorious in the 36-race season. There were flashes of bright spots for both teams, but each wants to pick up the performance in 2016.
It would be normal to think that McMurray was satisfied in making the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career. The No. 1 team showed instances in which it could contend for the win with two second-place finishes at Phoenix in the spring to Kevin Harvick and Martinsville in the fall to Jeff Gordon.
The short tracks are where the team has excelled in the past few seasons. One area in which the team decreased from 2014 was at the 1.5-mile racetracks. Throughout his career, McMurray has been solid on the mile-and-a-half tracks, but last year was an exception.
It was just two years ago that the No. 1 car won the Sprint All-Star Race and McMurray left Charlotte Motor Speedway $1 million dollars richer. Last season was a struggle, which is why in 2016 one of the team’s main goals is to re-establish itself on those tracks.
“Ultimately, it’s just about better cars and better setups,” McMurray told Speedway Digest last month at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I’ve been able to win at some mile-and-a-half racetracks in the past. In 2014, we were just really good at those tracks and in 2015 we weren’t as good.”
McMurray, 39, is coming off a season in which he posted four top fives and 10 top-10 finishes, down from the 13 that he posted a year prior. However, the Missouri native was consistent with a career-best 14.9 average finish, but finished with a career-low in laps led, 14.
In the 11 1.5-mile tracks that were on the Sprint Cup schedule, McMurray averaged a 15.8 average finish, leading nine laps at Texas back in April. Based on the fact that he accumulated just two top-10 finishes in those 11 races, he knows that he needs to improve in 2016.
“I didn’t particularly do anything different,” McMurray said. “Ultimately, it’s just about being able to have the right car and the right setup underneath you.”
Compared to 2014, McMurray had had a better average finish on the 1.5-mile racetracks, but didn’t run up nearly as much. In the previous season, he had two finishes outside of the top 35 at Kansas and Kentucky, but ended the season with three-consecutive top-five finishes at Charlotte, Texas and Homestead. The No. 1 car finished inside of the top five in both races in NASCAR’s hub in 2014.
All year long, Larson struggled in 2015. The driver that had so much animosity behind him due to his remarkable rookie season ended up with a disappointing 2015 season.
In his first year of competition at the Sprint Cup level, Larson exceeded expectations, though he didn’t go to Victory Lane. It could be argued that it was the best rookie season since Jimmie Johnson in 2002. The results were different last season.
The No. 42 car is notoriously known for riding within an inch of the wall at the majority of the 1.5-mile tracks. The closer to the wall, the more grip there is. But if you get too close to the wall, it will come and grab you, ultimately damaging the car.
“I think just as an organization we want to be better on the mile-and-a-halves,” Larson said. “That’s the majority of our schedule, so we kind of need to focus the most on that. 1.5-mile tracks are my favorite tracks too. I definitely look forward to going to them every week and I feel like we got better on them throughout the year last year.”
Last season, Larson earned just two top fives and 10 top-10 finishes, down from eight top fives and 17 top 10s in his rookie year. The mile-and-a-halves were tracks that the he really struggled on.
With the exception of the season finale at Homestead, Larson recorded zero top-five finishes. He had six finishes of 25th or worse on the 11 1.5-mile racetracks that marked his average finish down to a disappointing 21.1. With a fifth-place finish at Homestead, in a race that looked like he was going to track down race leader Brad Keselowski before a late-race caution, there is reason for optimism heading into 2016.
If the team could go back to the way it performed in the 2014 season, Larson could qualify for his first Chase this season.
The new aerodynamic package for the 2016 season could play into Larson’s hands. The way that the new setup will be plays into a dirt racers hand, with the way that the car slides around. This is something that he normally runs well in as he has had a lot of experience on dirt. In the two races that it was raced in last year at Kentucky and Darlington, the overall racing was some of the best racing all year long.
“I think the aero package will probably help the mile and-a-half racing the most to which will hopefully help our race team,” Larson said. “I would love to be better on mile-and-a-halves than we were last year.”
The team has made multiple changes over the off-season including the addition of crew chief Chad Johnson. He has been atop the pit box for three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in the last two seasons which were two of Stewart’s worst years to date. Prior to that, Johnston was the leader for Martin Truex, Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing, where the two accumulated a lot of success, resulting in only one victory at Sonoma in 2013.
In order for this year to be a success, both cars will need to make the Chase and potentially complete for the first Sprint Cup championship in team history.
Prior to last season, Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing guaranteed that both of his drivers would make the Chase. Though he was wrong, there is reason to believe that this could be the year, especially with the money and resources that Rob Kauffman is bringing in from MWR.
Stewart-Haas Racing Continues to be Amongst NASCAR Elites
In the middle of 2008, Tony Stewart took a chance of a lifetime. Like an everyday citizen, taking a risk has its rewards, but also has many downfalls along the way. The grizzly veteran’s move to join Gene Haas and create a NASCAR super team has paid off.
Prior to Stewart joining Haas as a co-owner, the team had never won a race. The highest finishing driver that Haas had ever been a part of was Mike Bliss in 2005 and Jeff Green in 2006 each finishing 28th in the championship standings.
Once Stewart made the move to invest in the team, it instantly gave Haas CNC Racing more credibility. Over the span of the seven full-time seasons that the duo has been together as owners, it has resulted in great success. The organization has accumulated two championships, 30 wins, 136 top fives and 258 top-10 finishes to go along with 26 poles.
The team was running strong in the summer of 2013 before releasing Ryan Newman. However, in the next race, he went out and won the 2013 edition of the Brickyard 400 for the No. 39 team. But then, it was announced that the organization was adding 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch after he had a successful season with Furniture Row Racing. With an already announced Kevin Harvick coming over the driver lineup at SHR became one of the fiercest companies in all of motorsports.
As Stewart approaches his final season behind the wheel of a stock car, he personally has nothing to worry about as far as his career. He has had a dismal three seasons. But those years will not define the legacy he has left on the sport.
Stewart knows that his team needs to step up the game in order to have a successful season and make the Chase in his final year. He’s confident that with the addition of Mike Bugarewicz on top of the pit box, he has an opportunity for success. The new crew chief of the No. 14 car has led Harvick to two-consecutive winning seasons as the team engineer.
“I think we got two guys for sure that definitely have a great opportunity to race for a championship,” Stewart told Speedway Digest. “If you can win a race, you’ve got that opportunity. You don’t have to win every race to get to Homestead, Jeff proved that last year. I definitely feel like we have two drivers that have that opportunity to get to Homestead and be successful.”
The last two seasons have shaken Stewart’s confidence level. There is no reason why he can’t go out and be dominant like the old “Smoke.” The new aerodynamic package will be in his favor. It puts the car back into the drivers’ hands to an extent, and allows them to maneuver the car through traffic, something that he is magnificent at.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion is a living legend. No matter the outcome of his final year, he has had one of the most successful careers of any NASCAR driver, winning three championships and capturing 48 checkered flags. The Indiana native hasn’t forgotten how to drive, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he wins his first Daytona 500 in his final season behind the wheel of the No. 14.
“It’s a coin toss on what could happen with me,” Stewart said. “It could be the same, it could be worse, it could be better. If we make it any better I think it has potential to be a lot better. I’m excited about that opportunity on our side.”
If speed is any indication on the performance of SHR in the coming seasons, Harvick is one of the front-runners for the championship. Winning his first Cup title with the organization in 2014 and having the raw speed that he’s just never had before has elevated the No. 4 car as the one to beat week-in and week-out.
The team led by Rodney Childress is destined to do great things because there is simply no reason why they will struggle in 2016. Since the driver and crew chief combination began working together it has been the most successful combination in NASCAR.
Winning eight races in the last two seasons, and having a career-high 28 top-10 finishes just last season, Harvick is hitting on all eight cylinders as they approach the new year.
“I think as you look at the situations and scenarios that our team has had to deal with over the past couple of years with running well, kind of having that little bit of a target on your back, you learn to ignore a lot of those things,” Harvick said about winning the championship. “For us, it’s really about keeping your head down and trying to do the same things again.”
In his first two seasons with SHR, the California native has led more laps than he did in his previous 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing. In 2015, he led a career-high and series-high 2,294 laps. But for him, that isn’t good enough. He wants more.
Harvick, 40, wants championships. He’s won every big race that there is to win. He’s a former Daytona 500 champion, Brickyard 400 champion, two-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500.
“We expect to go out and be competitive and hopefully be in position to win races, work hard on a weekly basis to try and do that,” Harvick said. “Your goal is to be around when it gets to Homestead every year.”
After coming up just short of winning two-consecutive championships, it has motivated Harvick and company to be better than they were last season. Finishing second was the theme of the year last season with 13 second-place finishes. The one that hurt the most was finishing second in the championship race to Kyle Busch, resulting in a second-place finish in the point standings.
“We constantly try to improve,” he said. “I think for us one of the big areas to improve on was Homestead. We didn’t feel like we ran as well as we should the last two years in that particular race, and we’ve already been back there and tested. We’ve changed some internal parts and pieces.
“We’ve added a lot of people from within the engineering department. We’ve added some time in the aero department. As a company we’ve definitely strengthened our self in a lot of departments to try to improve on that.”
One thing that improved throughout the 2015 season was the relationship between Busch and crew chief Tony Gibson. The No. 41 team had two wins, 10 top fives and 21 top-10 finishes, the most he has had since 2009 and tied for a career-high.
After competing in his second full season for SHR, Busch’s chemistry with the start-up team has been tremendous. He has gone from working with an engineer in Daniel Knost, to now two straight seasons with veteran crew chief, Gibson.
If it weren’t for a rain shortened race in Phoenix, potentially, the team could have been racing for a championship and slotted his car in the championship battle with with Harvick.
No one has ever questioned the Las Vegas native’s talent. He has had to build chemistry with numerous different crew chiefs over his tenure in the Cup Series, but working with Gibson is a lot like working with another old-school crew chief in Jimmy Fennig. When that dominant duo worked together, they won the championship.
“There is no reason to think that we can’t be front-runners,” Busch said. “With the results that Kevin has posted, especially him, we have to do a better job on the No. 41 car to mimic that, but for sure.
“Tony Stewart is going to have a new drive within him. He’s got a new crew chief and what I’m seeing is more collaboration amongst the four Stewart-Haas cars. It’s better than I’ve ever seen it before. I would definitely give us the thumbs up on being a front runner.”
Including Danica Patrick, all four of the SHR drivers have different personalities, which have allowed the team to grow closer together. Now as they enter their third season of working together, SHR has established itself as one of the top teams in NASCAR. Getting equipment and engines from Hendrick Motorsports won’t ever hurt, and the alliance has given SHR the boost it needs to compete for wins.
In 2015, two of the teams performed, Patrick improved and Stewart is motivated as he begins his final season as a driver. Patrick is coming off of arguably her best season as she had a 23.5 average finish the best of her young career, and finished in the top 10 twice, down from her total of three in 2014.
After this season, SHR will look a lot different as Clint Bowyer will come in and drive the No. 14 car in replacement of the legend, so this year could be the most pivotal, yet fun year in the eight years of existence for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Danica Patrick Looks to Improve on 2015
Danica Patrick is looking to up the ante heading into the new season. Throughout her tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing, change has always occurred on the No. 10 team. For the third consecutive season, she will have a new crew chief calling the shots for her.
Consistency has not quite been there since Patrick made the move to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013. Though she is entering her fourth full-time season, she hasn’t been behind the wheel of a stock car for a long time. This will just be her fifth full-time season in NASCAR, period, after racing open-wheel cars for the majority of her life.
Taking over the role of crew chief is former Michael Waltrip Racing employee Billy Scott. The third-year crew chief has never had a stability with one driver either. In 2014, Scott led Brian Vickers to nine top-10 finishes, but a disappointing 22nd-place finish in the standings at the end of the year. This came in the season that Vickers finally made it back to the Cup Series after battling to regain supremacy in NASCAR’s top series and back into a competitive ride.
In 2015, change was constant for Scott. For the better part of 18 races, he continued to crew chief the No. 55 team. However, Vickers was the driver for only two of those races after a resurfacing of blood clots came up and knocked him out of the ride. In the remaining races, he worked with Brett Moffitt, David Ragan and Michael Waltrip.
The second half of the season was better for Scott. He moved over to the No. 15 team to lead Clint Bowyer. He led Bowyer to a late season surge making the Chase for the first time as a crew chief. After making NASCAR’s playoffs, Bowyer and Scott were quickly eliminated from the Chase at the end of the first round due to poor finishes.
Knowing that, he needed to make a new career move since MWR was shutting its doors at the end of the season because co-team owner Rob Kauffman decided to take his funding elsewhere and support Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
The day after the 2015 season ended at Homestead, Scott was announced as the crew chief for Patrick. Since the duo has been paired together they have been able to grow closer together, even though she had very little input on whom her new crew chief would be.
“Billy has obviously been on the team now for a couple of months and he’s really done a good job of learning as much as he can, learning the shop and all of the things that need to be done to the car and obviously making changes to the car that he wants to make,” Patrick told Speedway Digest. “On our team, our crew chiefs are able to do that and I’m sure it’s pretty cool for crew chiefs to be able to call shots on the cars.”
Patrick is coming off a season in which she finished 24th in the standings. It was her best finish in the final championship standings coming off seasons when she finished 27th and 28th, respectively. She picked up two top-10 finishes and finished on the lead lap 14 times, down from three top 10s in 2014.
Typically, the No. 10 team hasn’t run well on the short tracks since Patrick began racing in the Cup Series. In 2013 and 2014, she had four top-20 finishes in the 12 short track events. However, last season, it was the short tracks of Martinsville and Bristol where she recorded her best finishes of seventh and ninth.
On the restrictor plate tracks any team can win and Patrick has done a solid job of running up front for the first three-quarters of those races. It is in the last stint of the event that she isn’t able to finish the job and be competitive as 20 of her 27 career laps led have come on restrictor plates. But either Daytona or Talladega is her best shot at winning a race in 2016.
Unloading off the hauler knowing the direction in which Scott and Patrick want to go will be crucial, and something that she has not had in her first three seasons after working with multiple crew chiefs.
She needs to give better feedback to the team so they can make changes and go in the right direction on the car instead of continuing to struggle and going in the wrong direction. Now that she has a former engineer as a crew chief, he might have a better understanding in the lingo that she gives back to the team.
“Billy and I have gotten along really well so far,” she said. “He is a super nice, relatable, easy to get along with guy and spends a lot of time on the shop floor it seems like talking to the guys and I feel like there is definitely a lot of excitement with the crew and everybody just seems like they are in a good mood.”
An advantage at Stewart-Haas Racing is its crew chiefs. Scott has previously worked with Rodney Childers, 2014 championship winning crew chief for Kevin Harvick, and has gained valuable knowledge from him. The welcoming atmosphere within the Kannapolis, N.C. shop could lead to great success and better competition on the race-track.
“He’s been doing a lot of that stuff and he worked with Rodney [Childress] back at MWR, so they have a relationship,” Patrick said of Scott. “As Kevin [Harvick] said in the ballroom there that the crew chiefs really for probably the first time are all going to be in sync and get along very well.
“Having Tony’s crew chief be the old engineer for the No. 4 and Tony Gibson works really well with Rodney and Rodney have worked with Billy, everybody has worked together. I think everybody is going to communicate extremely well, which in a four-car team is very valuable.”
Improvement is really what Patrick needs. She needs to be able to run competitive throughout the entire race and not just have flashes of quickness.
Last season, her teammates of Harvick and Kurt Busch were two of the fastest drivers each week. Learning from them is a valuable lesson for her after coming off of a combined 49 top-10 finishes between the two drivers.
If Scott and she can come into the season with momentum they might be able to point their way into the Chase. With an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, there is no reason as to why this combination can’t be successful. However, consistency and running toward the top 10 will be the ultimate goal for the team this season.
“I think that in 2014 I feel like we finished off the season with Tony Gibson solidly being top-15, top 10 and being relatively pretty fast every weekend,” Patrick explained. “I feel like with Daniel, being a new crew chief and in a new situation last year, I feel like we didn’t quite achieve that all of the time. Sometimes we were there, but sometimes we were worse than that and that was a step back from 2014.”
The new season allows for some experimenting early on. The No. 10 team has the potential to have a solid season, but it will be what Patrick and Scott surround themselves with within the organization and how quickly they can adjust to one other. If they are able to communicate and work together throughout the first half of the season they could be in prime position heading into the Chase.
“I would like to obviously get back to that top-15 running where if you have a good day you are in the top-10,” she said. “Once you start doing that regularly you will have a chance to win.”
Kevin Harvick Wins Drive4Clots.com 300 At Auto Club Speedway
Kevin Harvick’s dominance in NASCAR’s west coast swing continued with a win at the NASCAR XFINITY Series Drive4Clots.com 300. Harvick pulled away from Brendan Gaughan within the final laps to capture his first XFINITY Series win at Auto Club Speedway.
Harvick dominated the race, leading 100 of the 150 laps. He was also the only Cup Series driver to finish among the top five. The win was also his 46th XFINITY Series career win.
“I’m just a lucky guy to be piloting really fast cars,” said Harvick in Victory Lane. “We’ve just got to keep riding the wave.”
Harvick had also won the XFINITY race at Atlanta earlier in the season.
Closing out the top five in Fontana where Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher. Seven of the top 10 finishers were NASCAR XFINITY Series regulars.
After the final restart, Gaughan had been gaining spots and moving closer to Harvick. At the end 3.317 seconds separated the two.
“I would have loved one shot at a restart, just to see if I still had something for him,” said Gaughan after the race.
12 Sprint Cup Series drivers competed in Saturday’s race in preparation for Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
During NASCAR’s west coast swing – with races at Las Vegas and Phoenix – Harvick has dominated the Cup Series races. Saturday’s race was his first in the XFINITY Series during the west coast race weekends. Harvick has a chance to go for three wins in a row on Sunday in the Cup Series.
The XFINITY Series will be going on a break until the race at Texas Motor Speedway on April 10 – the first night race of the year.
Heading into the break Ty Dillon remains as the points leader, with a five point lead over Buescher. Defending series champion Elliott sits in third.