Richard Childress: JJ's going to fall
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Every year on the NASCAR media tour someone says something that people remember.
That moment in 2011 came during a luncheon at Richard Childress Racing when the respected team owner had a message that has come to be known (fairly or unfairly) as "the guarantee."
It wasn't exactly Joe Namath guaranteeing an upset victory in Super Bowl III, but Childress boldly predicted Jimmie Johnson was going down and RCR was going to do it.
"This is the year to knock Jimmie off that throne," Childress said. "We were close with Kevin [Harvick] last year, but this is the year to do it. It's going to be RCR. I feel certain."[+] EnlargeJason Smith/Getty ImagesRichard Childress, left, is hoping for a bounce-back year from Jeff Burton, who finished last in the 2010 Chase.
Childress immediately glanced over at his four Sprint Cup drivers and asked: "Does that put too much pressure on you guys?"
Not in Jeff Burton's eyes.
"I'm glad Richard has the confidence to say we're going to win it," Burton said. "I'd be real nervous if he didn't. I'm proud of him for saying it."
Childress later was asked if he was guaranteeing an RCR title in 2011.
"I didn't guarantee it," he said. "I just said we were going to do it."
OK. We won't argue over semantics. But like it or not, people still refer to it as "the guarantee."
"You get a gut feeling sometimes and I have that this year," Childress said. "We are going to throw everything at it we can. Nothing lasts forever in life. Jimmie's time will run out, and when it does, RCR wants to be there to win that championship."
The last RCR Cup title was 17 years ago when Dale Earnhardt won his seventh and final championship. Harvick came close last year, going to the last race with a shot at it before falling a little short and finishing third behind Johnson and Denny Hamlin.
"It's been a long time for Richard and a long time since we've been able to experience [a Cup title] as a company," Harvick said. "So it's all about winning a championship at this point. Nothing else is good enough now."
It was Harvick who took over for Earnhardt at RCR after Earnhardt died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. The 10-year anniversary of that tragic moment is an emotional time at RCR.
"There are still an awful lot of people at RCR who knew Dale," Harvick said. "I just want everyone to understand how important this week is to us and how important it would be to race for a championship and try to win it this particular year."
Harvick has no doubts that Johnson is the man he needs to beat to get there.
"I don't think you can count on him stumbling,'' Harvick said. "They continually beat the teams in the same [Hendrick Motorsports] shop. So that to me tells me it's a chemistry thing."
Harvick will take the championship any way he can get it, but he hopes he has to beat five-time champ Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team down the stretch to earn it.
"I think you always want to beat the best, and right now they are the best in our sport," Harvick said. "They've had some great accomplishments, but somebody is going to beat them at some point."
Harvick was the regular-season points leader last year, but he's most proud of how well the No. 29 Chevrolet team raced in the Chase.
''To keep that high level for 10 weeks [in the playoff] is something we'd never done before," Harvick said. "I felt like we learned from those experiences. It's a different level."
Harvick now has a new look with Budweiser as his primary sponsor, but he wants to keep most things the same from 2010. He remembers when things didn't go so well, when he failed to make the Chase in 2009 and failed to win a race for two seasons.
I'm glad Richard has the confidence to say we're going to win it. I'd be real nervous if he didn't. I'm proud of him for saying it.” -- Jeff Burton
"You can look back two years and see the nightmare," Harvick said. "You can still remember that, and I think that's a lot of what drives the whole company, including myself. Those are the things you don't want to experience all over again."
No one at RCR made the 2009 Chase when Childress had a four-car team, but all three drivers made it last season when the organization cut back to three cars.
Now RCR is a four-car operation again, with Paul Menard coming on board. But Childress believes the team is better-equipped to add the fourth car this year.
"We weren't prepared before to do it," Childress said. "We thought we could do it with the personnel we had, but it doesn't work that way. You have to add a lot more personnel."
Childress brought in 40 new employees this year, along with the addition of Menard and crew chief Slugger Labbe.
"It's a huge opportunity for me," Menard said. "Having Slugger come with me definitely shortens the learning curve. This is the most welcoming group I've ever experienced. And if you want something done here, it gets done. That's refreshing."
Menard posted a career-best six top-10s last year for Richard Petty Motorsports.
"Paul really came into his own last year," said new teammate Clint Bowyer. "I feel like this is going to be his breakout season."
Bowyer thought he was about to break out and make a title run after winning the first race of the 2010 Chase, but that ended with a controversial 150-point penalty for a body violation that was 60-thousandths of an inch outside the tolerances.
"You're never over it," Bowyer said. "It sucked, but it is what it is and you've got to go on. One thing that ended [the frustration] for me was Talladega [where he won last October]. I wanted to prove something and we did."
Burton wants to prove he still can get it done after finishing last in the 2010 Chase and posting only one top-10 in the final eight races.
"We didn't end the year the way we wanted to end it," Burton said. "So we're extremely motivated to prove we can be a championship contending team, and I honestly believe we can."
Winning the championship is a mantra this year at RCR from the top down.
"Everybody beats their chests pretty hard this time of year," Burton said. "But the fact of the matter is we have the people at RCR to get it done."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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