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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Las Vegas in Retrospect: Richard Childress Racing

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.

Paul Menard
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.

Kevin Harvick
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.

Jeff Burton
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.

Clint Bowyer
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.

Amy McHargue
http://ellipticalcurrents.blogspot.com

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Last Week in Retrospect - Richard Childress Racing - Phoenix

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.

Paul Menard
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.

Jeff Burton
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.

Kevin Harvick
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.

Clint Bowyer
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.

Looking Forward
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.