- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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There is a sort of urgency in the dark at Richard Childress Racing.
The urgency is to break through. The team has placed multiple drivers in the past three Chases, including the entire RCR fleet in the past two. Still, team owner Richard Childress hasn't won a Cup title since Dale Earnhardt won his seventh championship in 1994.
The dark is the vast unknown of how RCR will stack up against the competition after an offseason of engineering blindly, without the gauge of testing in the same sessions as other teams.
"We're proud of what we've done, but it's also clear that it's not enough," says senior-statesman driver and team sage Jeff Burton, who finished sixth in the Chase in 2008, eighth in '07 and seventh in '06.
"There's a bit of anxiety about being able to take the next step [to the title], and how we take the next step, because we haven't done it."
Burton was a rookie with another team when Earnhardt won the '94 Cup, and none of the other three drivers -- Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and team newcomer Casey Mears -- was even in NASCAR at the time.
"Until we do it, we don't know that we can," Burton says. "So, I don't want to say we're nervous, but we're anxious about it. And we know it's time to get it done."
But Harvick, the senior driver in terms of years with the team -- he was given the towering task of climbing into Earnhardt's cars only weeks after the icon was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500 -- says the RCR contingent isn't going to get carried away, isn't going to press.
"I think we all have been around long enough to know that if you try to force it, it's going to make it worse," says Harvick, who finished fourth in the Chase last year, 10th in '07 and fourth in '06.
"Experience kind of tames most of that [restlessness]," Harvick continues. "But in '06 we were close [he uses the editorial 'we'], in '03 we were close [he was fifth in the old, season-long points system], in '07 Clint had a shot [finishing third] and the last couple of years we've had all three in.
"So it's one of those deals where we're like right there, and we just need that last little bit to push us over the edge."
What is that last little bit?
"Everything," says Harvick.
So now it gets complicated.
"It's not one thing. To be able to beat the 48 and the 99 [Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, who dueled for the title last year and are the top two favorites again], it's everything. From myself to Todd [Berrier, his crew chief] to the cars, and everything in between.
"Everything just needs" -- and here, Harvick places the tips of his right thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart -- "that much."
But here, Burton stands in the technological dark.
Without the benefit of offseason testing, "The big deal to me is, how much have we learned?" Burton says. "Did we learn enough last year, and can we apply that this year?"
Just by engineering on simulators and shakers at the massive RCR compound, "We're sure we've made our cars better," Burton continues. "But we know our competition has made their cars better, too.
"If we've improved 10 percent, and other people have improved 14 percent, we've lost 4 percent. And that, ultimately, is all that matters."
RCR met some skepticism in the fall when it hired Mears, with only one career Cup win, as its fourth driver for '09. He was a cast-off from powerful Hendrick Motorsports.
But expectations for Mears "are high," Burton says firmly. "A lot of people say, 'Well, he didn't do that great at Hendrick, that means he can't do it.' I don't believe it."
Pointing out that Jeff Gordon didn't win a race for Hendrick last year, either, Burton says, "You've got to be in the right situation. Casey's shown the ability to go fast. We've got to put Casey in the position to be successful."
Where lies that tiny percentage? What's in that little gap between Harvick's thumb and forefinger?
"If I knew that, I'd go ask Pop-Pop for a raise," says Mike Dillon, RCR's vice president of competition and Childress' son-in-law. He's using the same nickname as his sons do for the team patriarch, who this winter has been away on a hunting trip with corporate sponsors' executives.
There's one thing Dillon knows, even as Pop-Pop packs his high-powered rifles through faraway mountains.
"We're going to win a championship before long," Dillon says. "We'd better, or I'm going to have to figure out what else I'm going to be doing around here, because somebody else is going to be doing [this job].
"We've got to win. We've got to win championships -- especially now [in this awful economic climate], if you want to keep sponsorships going."
So matters are urgent in the village of Welcome, N.C., in the dark.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.