Of the traditional NASCAR powerhouses, no team had a more disappointing 2012 season than Richard Childress Racing, which seemed caught up on the downside of one of its many ups and downs in recent years.
The numbers don’t lie.
In 2011, RCR won six races and had 19 top-five finishes, with Kevin Harvick finishing third in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings for the second consecutive season.
This year, however, the team scored only one race victory and eight top fives, with Harvick falling to eighth in points and Paul Menard and Jeff Burton again failing to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Even more telling, perhaps, is that the team’s former competition director, Scott Miller, moved to Michael Waltrip Racing and led that team to its best season ever, with another ex-RCR racer, Clint Bowyer, finishing a career-best second in points.
To add insult to injury, prior to the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix — ironically, RCR’s only victory of the year — word leaked out that Harvick was headed to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, which should make next year interesting, to say the least.
There was plenty of speculation about why RCR had such a disappointing season, including the suggestion that the team was spending a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort on Austin and Ty Dillon, grandsons of car owner Richard Childress and clearly the future of the organization. That theory was strongly denied by the team.
At the end of 2011, Harvick wanted Gil Martin replaced as his crew chief, so Childress named Shane Wilson crew chief of the No. 29. Given that in 2006, Harvick won the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship together by the largest points margin in history with Wilson as his crew chief, it seemed like a natural fit.
But when the pairing didn’t produce the desired results, Martin was back with Harvick at the second Bristol race and remained with him for the rest of the season.
“Think back to 2010, 2011 – Kevin Harvick and that No. 29 team won seven races and finished third in the points two years in a row. Kevin wanted the team dismantled. They dismantled the team,” said SPEED analyst Larry McReynolds. “… I just think it’s been a long time since Kevin Harvick was truly happy at Richard Childress Racing.”
Likewise, Burton’s new-for-2012 crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, made it less than a year before moving to Richard Petty Motorsports. He will be replaced by Luke Lambert, who was Burton’s crew chief for 17 races in 2011.
Part of the problem may have been under the hood: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, which partnered with RCR to form ECR Engines, announced that Earnhardt Ganassi will use engines from Hendrick Motorsports in 2013.
RCR also has an alliance with Furniture Row Racing, which late in the season hired Kurt Busch as its driver. Given that Harvick loathes Busch, it’s hard to imagine the two of them having much of a working relationship going forward.
But for all the theories, the conjecture and the gossip, this much is almost certain: RCR’s cars simply weren’t fast enough in 2012 to compete with the front-runners.
Harvick’s stats bear that out: In the 22 races from the first Pocono event in June until the second Texas race in November, Harvick had only one top-five finish — a fifth at Atlanta — and four top 10s. Sixteen times in those 22 races, Harvick finished between 10th and 16th. He was plenty consistent, but his cars lacked speed.
After Harvick’s victory in Phoenix, Childress suggested that one reason for the team’s disappointing performance was that it didn’t keep up with the trick rear-suspension geometry the other teams were using.
“Everybody has worked hard all year long and did a whole lot, and there's no question about it, we got a little behind on some of this skew and all this stuff that people were doing,” Childress said. “It put us behind, and you know, we didn't get the year we wanted.”
To help remedy the team’s technical woes, last month RCR hired Dr. Eric Warren as its competition director. Warren previously served as technical director at Evernham Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.
Can RCR turn things around for 2013?
History suggests the answer is yes.
The team has been through several boom-bust cycles before. In 2009, RCR went winless, with just 14 top-five finishes. A year later, the organization won five races and earned 29 top fives.
It can be done, but there’s a long way to go to get there.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.