Coming out of Daytona, the Richard Childress Racing Team spent the week looking for ways to improve upon their week one performances. With team newcomer Paul Menard posting the best finish among RCR drivers at Daytona with a 10th place finish, last year's Chase drivers Burton, Harvick, and Bowyer were left searching for ways to better their respective 36th, 42nd, and 17th place finishes.
Coming into Phoenix, the RCR teams each had reason for some confidence based on past track performances. Paul Menard has shown multiple top ten finishes on tracks of a similar length to Phoenix. Kevin Harvick has visited the Winner's Circle at PIR in all three series. Jeff Burton claims two past wins at the Arizona track. Clint Bowyer found a top ten finish at the 2010 Spring race at PIR. All signs were pointing toward a good week for Richard Childress Racing.
The number 27 Chevrolet started the week struggling with car handling, finishing 19th in first practice. By the second practice improvements had been made and Menard posted the 10th fastest speed in that practice session. Qualification speeds were not as competitive for Paul as he qualified in the 13th starting position for Sunday's race at Phoenix.
Menard fought a tight race car during much of the Sunday event. The number 27 car had contact with the 11 car causing a need for left-side tires during the lap 50 caution. Menard came back in for a full four-tire start just 14 laps later, leaving him to restart on lap 66 far behind the leaders. Throughout the day, Paul managed to avoid multi-car pileups that occurred on the track.
Adjustments to the car continued and improvement slowly became a reality but a caution flag just after his final pit stop of the day left Paul a lap down to the leaders. Finishing 17th in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 dropped Paul Menard five spots in the points standings, leaving him now in the 13th position.
Practice at Phoenix International Raceway started out well for the 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet of Jeff Burton. First practice ended with Jeff posting the second fastest speed of the session. From first to second practice, track conditions changed and changes on the car weren't working; Burton could only find the 25th spot on the speed boards. No major improvements could be found before Jeff's qualifying run, as he posted speeds that would only earn him a starting spot of 25th.
Jeff drove hard from the second the green flag waved, had a much-improved race car over his practice conditions, and found himself in the third position by lap 50 of the race on Sunday. Burton's first stop went without incident, with the driver calling for no adjustments to the car and four tires. A slow 4-tire stop on lap 51 left Jeff in the 22nd position on the track.
On-track contact with Carl Edwards on lap 59 left the 31 car in need of a trip to the garage for repair. 32 laps later Burton reentered the race. Several additional pit stops were needed to continue repairing and improving the car. By the end of the day Jeff was 36 laps behind leaders and finished in the 26th place. A trouble filled day in Phoenix leaves Burton improving just one spot in the points to 32nd place in the standings.
After an early engine failure at Daytona the 29 team had their sights set on improving their 37th place standing in Cup points after week one of the season. First practice at Phoenix left Harvick looking good; the team posted the 4th fastest speed among drivers. Second practice showed the Budweiser Chevrolet team that not all change is good as the team could not figure out how to compensate for changing track conditions. Kevin posted only the 25th fastest speed in second practice. More changes to the car set up did partially pay off as Harvick qualified in the 17th starting spot for Sunday.
An early slow pit stop started off Kevin's day badly. When cars in front of Harvick spun on lap 58, the 29 car made contact with Mark Martin. That contact required several visits to the pits for repair under caution and led to a 31st position restart. Fortunately, when 14 cars wrecked on the backstretch Kevin was far enough back in the field to have time to react. He drove through the carnage on the track without damage.
A fast pit stop on lap 128 helped Harvick make up six positions. Continuing to run strong, he was credited with leading a lap during the next series of pits stops. A pit stop and another caution later found Kevin running fifth with 94 laps to go. A bobble with the right front tire by crew during the final stop of the day left the 29 car in 6th position when the caution came out on lap 285 but Harvick was able to race his way to finish in the 4th position on the day. Kevin moved up 15 spots in the standings and now claims the 22nd spot in the points.
Practice at Phoenix proved to be mediocre for Team Bowyer. Loose car conditions left Clint as 16th fastest on the track during first practice. Second practice found a slight improvement as Bowyer posted the 11th fastest speed of that session. Ultimately, handling and speed went back the other way when it was time to qualify. Bowyer could only find enough speed to start from the 16th position.
Much like his practice runs, Clint complained the car was loose during the opening laps of Sunday's race. On lap 40, crew chief Shane Wilson found the first opportunity to improve track position for the 33 Cheerios Impala and called for a two tire stop. Bowyer came out of the pits in the third position. A lap 50 on-track incident brought out the yellow and allowed for further work by the crew, four tires and a trackbar adjustment seemed to be just what the car needed.
Contact involving Edward, Burton, and Kyle Busch also found Clint's car with minor damage. Just after the green flag waved again, Bowyer was caught in the big wreck of the day and was off the track for repairs for 48 laps. Even though Clint came back into the race in 32nd position, he was able to improve on that and finish the day in 27th place. The number 33 Chevrolet lost five spots in the standings and is now 21st place in the points.
Las Vegas looks to be kind to the Richard Childress Racing Team in the upcoming week. Jeff Burton shows the most past success in the desert with two past wins and eight top ten finishes on the Vegas mile and a half track. The remaining RCR drivers are still looking for their first Cup Series wins in Las Vegas. Harvick has finished four times in the top ten and Clint Bowyer has two top tens under his belt. Paul Menard looks to be the weak link this week with just a 26.5 average finish in Vegas. The best finish of his four Cup starts has been 17th position. But as the last two weeks has shown us, anything is possible.