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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Last Week in Retrospect: Richard Childress Racing - Kansas

Cruising into Kansas Richard Childress Racing was coming off a Kevin Harvick win and was looking to improve upon last week's finishes for the remaining three drivers. Paul Menard showed much improvement from his 28th fastest speed in first practice at Kansas to 5th quickest on the boards during the second session. This earned Paul a late qualifying position, where he posted the 9th fastest speed among all drivers.

Jeff Burton was slow in first practice, posting a 36th place speed on the boards. Second practice saw some improvement and Jeff was able to post the 17th quickest speed. Burton held steady through qualifications and would begin Sunday's race in the 16th position.

Kevin Harvick was 26th in the first session at Kansas and dropped back slightly to 28th during second practice. Qualifications found Kevin on the track early, Harvick was able to find speed on the track and hold onto the 10th starting position for Sunday. Clint Bowyer rolled into Kansas with car issues and found himself 31st in first practice. Car adjustments gave Clint the grip he needed to find 12th fastest speed in second practice but he could only qualify in for 27th on the starting grid.

The STP 400 from Kansas Speedway
Fireworks at Kansas Speedway began the night before the running of the STP 400; after the Camping World Series Trucks Race as team owner Richard Childress accosted Kyle Busch in the garage area following a post-race on-track bump between Busch and Joey Coulter's RCR truck. With much speculation over what happened and what penalties would be handed down to RCR owner the team's Cup drivers were forced to focus on the race amid much speculation regarding their leader.

Kevin Harvick made a charge to the front shortly after the green flag on Sunday. From his starting position on 10th place Kevin was able to move his way to 5th position by lap 29. On lap 40, just before first green-flag pit stops were to begin Harvick was still holding the 5th position on the track but voiced over the radio that the car was tight and needed to turn better in the corners.

The first 45 laps saw few major moves by RCR drivers; Paul Menard slipped to 13th by the end of the first green flag run. Menard was complaining the car was loose and took four tires and a trackbar adjustment in an attempt to improve his conditions. Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer were complaining of similarly loose conditions and took comparable adjustment during their stops. Jeff would come through the pit cycle in 20th position, Bowyer in 21st.

By the first yellow flag period on lap 69 Kevin Harvick had moved into 4th place on the track, Clint Bowyer had moved to 16th, Jeff Burton was 19th, and Paul Menard was running 18th. At the half-way mark the 33 car of Bowyer was running 13th, Menard was in 24th position, Burton ran 18th, and Harvick had slipped out of the top ten.

Throughout the race, Harvick was plagued by tight condition out of the pits, a good car in the middle of a run, and loose handling before the next stop. Bowyer's car was loose for the duration of the race; after the race, Clint said “It was really hot and we just couldn't find any grip the entire day and it got worse as the day went on.”

Burton fought similar poor-handling with his Caterpillar Chevrolet and Menard had a car that was no better. Long green-flag runs left the teams with little time in the pits to experiment with adjustments to try to improve conditions for the drivers. Ultimately, there would be no Richard Childress drivers in the top ten finishers in Kansas. Kevin Harvick finished in 11th, Bowyer in 18th position with Menard just behind in 19th, and Burton would finish one lap down to the leaders in 25th place.

Kevin lost two spots in the standings, slipping to 4th in the points totals but with three season wins there is little doubt that he will be one of 12 drivers vying for the Championship at the end of the year. Clint dropped one position in points and is now in 9th position in the standings. Paul held steady at 20th in points, and Jeff slid back to the 24th place after losing two notches on the day.

Looking Ahead to Pocono...
Team Owner Richard Childress will be at the track but with a lighter wallet and on guard after NASCAR handed down a $150,000 fine and placed Childress on probation for the remainder of the 2011 season for his actions towards Kyle Busch on Saturday following the CWTS race. The RCR patriarch accepted the penalty from NASCAR and made a statement taking full responsibility for his actions in regard to the incident.

With the media split between those who feel the penalty was not severe enough and those who applaud Childress' actions, this is likely to stay in the news throughout the week. RCR drivers will have to ignore the buzz surrounding the team once arriving in Pocono. Menard has his work cut out for him; with a 25.6 average finish at Pocono Paul will have to dig deep to finish big this weekend.

Harvick claims top ten finishes in 7 of his 20 starts at the Tricky Triangle, with back-to-back 4th place finishes in 2010 Kevin has a good shot at taking home the trophy for the fourth time this season. Four of Burton's last five finishes at Pocono have been in the top five. Jeff needs a good week and Pocono could be the place to deliver it.

Half of Bowyer's starts in Long Pond Pennsylvania have given up top tens at the end of the day – with the right conditions, a lot of focus, and a little bit of luck it would not be unlikely to find three RCR drivers in the top ten at the end of the race this weekend. Tune in this weekend for two practices on Friday, Qualifications on Saturday, and the 5-Hour Energy 500 coming to you live Sunday afternoon at 1pm. Check back next week for Last Week in Retrospect: Richard Childress Racing from Pocono.

Amy McHargue

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Last Week in Retrospect: Richard Childress Racing - Charlotte

Going into the Coca-Cola 600 the Richard Childress Racing team regrouped, talked about how to improve what was lacking during the All-Star Race and readied themselves to improve their Championship standings placement by the end of the 600 miles race.

By the end of the two practices and qualifications, it was clear that RCR might have something for the competition. Jeff Burton sat atop the speed board at the end of first practice, Paul Menard found the top spot in the second practice session, and the third practice sowed both Burton and Menard in the top ten fastest speeds of the session.

Burton held on to his practice speeds and would roll off the starting grid in the 5th spot on Sunday. Menard fell back to 16th during qualifications, Clint Bowyer posted a speed fast enough to start 10th, Kevin Harvick would begin Sunday’s race back in the 28th position after fighting a tight car throughout the days leading to the Coca-Cola 600.

The Coca-Cola 600
Off the start, Jeff Burton gained track position to make fourth place by the end of lap one. Drivers began to settle in for the long 600 miles in opening laps and racing remained relatively calm on the track. Green-lap pit stops began on lap 43 when Paul Menard came in for tires, fuel, and an air pressure adjustment. Paul had no complaints regarding his car during opening laps.

Jeff Burton gave up the number one spot to come to the pits on lap 47. The 31 Caterpillar Team opted for two tires on their first stop and because of their quick work in the pits Jeff was able to restart still in the lead position. Clint Bowyer, running 12th, also visited his pit during lap 47 and took four tires and a wedge adjustment to fight tight conditions.

Menard, from the 13th position during lap 65 reported his car was good, especially in turns three and four. Kevin Harvick had been weaving in and out of traffic during the beginning of the race, and although his car was reportedly tight moved inside the top 15 at lap 86.

Harvick spent much time on his radio in the opening 100 laps telling his Crew Chief that they were fighting the same handling issues they had fought for the previous two weeks. Crew Chief Gil Martin, at one point early in the race told Kevin to simmer down, they had four hours left to figure it out. Jeff Burton remained the leader at the lap 80 restart but his earlier two-tire stop soon caught up with him and he began to fall back through the pack. By lap 89 Burton had fallen to the 9th position.

As the first quarter of the race drew to a close Bowyer was clearly unhappy with his car, the race, the track, and just about anything else he came across. Over his radio Bowyer was heard saying “There's just no won't turn...the car's tight.” Another four-tire stop with a wedge adjustment and full tank of fuel was hopefully the cure as Clint restarted in 18th position at lap 103.

The 27 crew of Paul Menard had an almost flawless top under the lap 98 caution, took four tires, fuel, and no adjustments to the car. Paul would restart 15th, behind several cars who opted for two-tire stops during the caution. Kevin Harvick's team had a good stop for fuel, tires, and adjustments; Kevin would restart 16th. Jeff Burton also took four tires under yellow and would restart 14th on the track.

The Richard Childress Racing Team drivers, along with most everyone else on the track, settled in over the next 50 laps without a lot of pushing, shoving, or jockeying for position on the track. Bowyer was still had handling issues plaguing him regardless of what the crew changed during his stops. On lap 150 Clint was running 19th and saying the car was still shoving in the nose, loose in and tight off the turns. Kevin Harvick again began working his way through the field and by lap 175 had found the 5th running position.

An extended stop for Bowyer on lap 185 to adjust the camber left him in the pits with the hood up on the car. By the time he got back on track he would be in the 21st position. At the green flag on lap 187 Paul Menard showed in 5th position after another great pit stop by his team. At the halfway mark Menard was 9th, Harvick had dropped back to 12th , Burton showed in 15th, and Bowyer was running 21st and one lap down.

Lap 210 brought Harvick back on his radio saying that his car didn't like two tires. The car was tight and Kevin was having trouble turning through the corners. The 33 of Bowyer would take the wave around under the next caution helping him to regain a position on the lead lap but Paul Menard would again be the high man on RCR and would restart in the 5th position on lap 237. Unfortunately, on lap 240 Menard got loose, headed to the wall, then down across the track.

By lap 305, after a lengthy stay behind the wall for repairs Menard had rejoined the race and was several laps down in the 34th running spot. Harvick had again moved into the top 10 and was running 9th, Jeff Burton was 19th, and Clint Bowyer showed in the 20th position. Lap 340 brought about a restart after almost the entire field came for fuel and tires. Harvick dropped on the restart from 4th to 3rd place, while Jeff Burton was 18th, and Clint Bowyer was in the 13th spot.

With 55 laps to go Clint Bowyer had moved into the top ten while Harvick was holding onto 4th position. By lap 370 there had been some moving for position; some won but RCR lost the battle. Harvick was back to 9th, Jeff Burton to 10th, Clint Bowyer in 11th, and Paul Menard was in 29th and 18 laps down. With 10 laps to go, leaders lapped Menard again putting him 19 laps down.

Bowyer slid back to 11th place with 10 laps to go, had fallen to 13th on lap 292, and 12th on lap 293 but regained the 11th position on lap 294. While Clint was sliding backwards, both Burton and Harvick were moving forward. Lap 293 found Harvick and Burton in 8th and 9th places, respectively and by the next lap they had both moved up one position each to the 7th and 8th spots. With five laps to go the yellow waved for the Jimmie Johnson engine failure.

During the caution in an unusual display of teamwork Menard, several laps down but in line with his teammates on the track and Burton making up the middle of a RCR sandwich pushed the 7th place car of Harvick around the track. This let Kevin shut off the 29 car and save fuel for the upcoming Green-White-Checker finish. Upon the restart Burton got caught up a pile of cars who seemed unable to go. The 31 car spun as cars jammed the brakes all around in attempts to avoid one another.

Kevin stuck to the bottom of the track, avoided the pileup, and took over the 4th position. At the white flag, Harvick was challenging for third. As the leaders rounded turn three leader Dale Earnhardt, Jr ran out of gas. Second and third place cars lost fuel pressure as well and Harvick was able to dive below the slowing cars between turn four and the finish line to cross the finish line as the winner of the 2011 Coca-Cola 600.

Bowyer would finish 15th on the day and holds steady in the 8th position in the Championship standings. Burton ended his race in the 29th running position and gained one spot in the standings. Jeff now shows in the 22nd position in points. Menard crossed the line 29th and 19 laps down, losing another three spots in points, sliding to 20th position. Harvick's win improved his standing to 2nd place, up three spots from two weeks ago and now 36 points back from points leader Carl Edwards.

Looking Ahead to Kansas...
Paul Menard has just four starts under his belt at Kansas Motor Speedway, his best finish of 8th place coming last year. Paul's goal for the week should be to end his race in the top ten. With an average finish of 14.6 at Kansas Kevin Harvick has laid the groundwork to possibly earn back-to-back wins. If Harvick can pull it off, it would be his first Cup win at Kansas.

Just two of Jeff Burton’s 10 starts at Kansas have offered up top ten finishes but his intermediate track average is better than his 18.5 average finishing spot at Kansas. If Burton keeps the car underneath him, Kansas could be the jump start his season so badly needs.

A Kansas native, Bowyer is chasing his first win at this track along with the other RCR drivers. When asked about racing at Kansas Speedway, Clint says “I’m really excited about it...Once it (the track) was built, I drove by it every week and would set goals just to be able to drive there in anything. I never dreamed I would be able to drive an ARCA car there, let alone start a race in a Sprint Cup Series car.” It would be a big win for Bowyer as his best finish in Kansas has been in the runner-up finish in 2007. This could be Clint's week to shine at his home-state track.

Don’t miss the action in the Mid-West all weekend long, starting with two practices on Friday, qualifying on Saturday, and culminating on Sunday afternoon with the running of the STP 400 beginning just after 1pm. Tune in to find out if RCR can find the top spot again this week at Kansas Speedway.

Amy McHargue