Practice and qualifications were not easy for Richard Childress Racing in Las Vegas. Paul Menard had the best showing among the RCR drivers through practice and qualifications posting 11th fastest in the first session, qualified 18th for Sunday's race, and was 20th during second practice. The remaining three Childress drivers posted speeds that consistently found them ranging from 20th to 29th fastest on the track.
Kevin Harvick posted the 20th fastest speed in first practice, qualified in the 26th position, and fell to 27th during second practice. Jeff Burton was only a bit more successful at improving his first practice result of 23rd fastest on the track; he posted a qualification run that left him starting 21st on Sunday and was 22nd fastest in final practice session. Clint Bowyer had a similar experience to begin his week in Las Vegas as he showed the 29th best speed in first practice, qualified 28th on the starting grid, and ranked 28th during second practice.
After starting Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 in the 18th position Paul wasted no time in moving forward through the field. By lap 49 the RCR Menard's Impala was into the top ten though Paul was reporting loose conditions with the race car. The 27 Crew worked on the car throughout the day but the car continued to be tight in the center and loose off the turns despite the team's many adjustments.
Paul ran his quickest laps of the day just before the halfway mark and fought his way into the 6th running spot. A rough restart on lap 203 found Menard sliding back to the 12th position where he ultimately finished the day. Menard earned 32 points toward the Chase for his finish and leading three lap gained him a valuable bonus point. Coming out of Las Vegas Paul Menard is the highest ranked Childress driver, in the 6th place in Championship standings just 17 points behind points leader Tony Stewart.
Beginning the week 22nd in points standings Kevin Harvick was looking for a great finish to gain position in points. Beginning the race in the 27th position Kevin took little time to gain track position. By lap 10 Harvick had cracked the top 20 and stayed out to run as high as 2nd position during green flag pit stops at lap 57. On lap 78 Harvick was shown in the 14th position; he cracked the top ten before coming in for tires and fuel on lap 98.
Kevin was running fourth when the caution flag came out on lap 149 but was caught speeding when leaving pit road; his penalty would be to restart at the tail end of the pack. He fought tight conditions in traffic the remainder of the day but with two fast stops the 29 Budweiser Chevrolet Crew was able to finish the race in 17th. Kevin gained two spots in Championship standings bringing him to the 20th position in overall points, 42 points out of first.
Starting 21st on Sunday Jeff Burton fought an ill-handling race car from the beginning of the race. Adjustments were made at every stop by the Caterpillar Chevy Crew but the car simply did not respond. Jeff said after the race that the crew was obviously missing something on Sunday and he is hopeful that they will figure it out before heading to Bristol.
Any headway made with the car's handling was negated on lap 236 when Jeff missed his marks coming into his pit. At the end of the race, he ended where he started. Burton's 21st place finish in the Kobalt Tools 400 gained him 23 points toward the Championship. He neither gained nor lost position, and is still tied for 32nd position in points, 63 points away from being atop the points leader board.
Loose, loose, loose is what Clint Bowyer said to his crew from the drop of the green flag at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Early cautions allowed Bowyer's crew to make adjustments to the car during several stops. Chassis adjustments gave Clint what he needed to move his car up through the field, finding the top 20 by lap 102. Whereas the car drove well on the short runs, loose conditions returned to the number 33 Chevrolet on long green flag runs.
Finding grip after a stop on lap 149 gave Bowyer more fuel to reach toward the front of the pack. By staying out on the track when others came down pit road on lap 242, Clint led a lap and gained a bonus point toward Championship standings. By the end of the day Bowyer raced home in 15th position, gained a total of 30 points, and moved up into the 18th position in the standings, 38 points behind the top spot.
Looking Ahead...to Bristol
Bristol has been a track of mixed results for Richard Childress Racing in recent years. Paul Menard's best finish is 16th place in his seven Cup starts at Bristol; RCR cannot count on Menard as a probable top performer this week. Kevin Harvick has some past success at Bristol Motor Speedway with 11 of his 20 Cup starts here resulting in top ten finishes, nine top fives, and one win in 2005.
Clint Bowyer could find his first win next weekend in Bristol; ten Cup starts have given Clint five top tens, three top five finishes, but no wins to his credit. Jeff Burton has 34 Cup races dating back to 1994 at Bristol to draw experience from. Jeff claims 14 top ten finishes, eight top five finishes, and one win on this Tennessee short track. Burton looks to be the RCR favorite going into week four of the 2011 season.
Will the Richard Childress Racing Team collectively move up in the Points standings after Bristol? An off week makes us wait until March 20th to find out, but one thing is guaranteed – the racing will be hard and competition will be stiff. At the World's Fastest Half Mile, any incident on the track or in the pits can make the difference in how a driver's day ends.