Earnhardt Childress shop riding high
WELCOME, N.C. -- Richie Gilmore is being pulled in several directions. One meeting just ended 20 minutes late. Another is starting in less than a half-hour. In between there's barely time for an interview.
Life couldn't be busier.
It is the Monday after Jamie McMurray's Sprint Cup victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the chief operating officer of Earnhardt Childress Racing has a full schedule. When you're successful, you become popular, and few -- if any -- operations have been more successful this season than ECR.
The organization that builds engines for McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and for Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer at Richard Childress Racing is having a dream year.
It captured the season's two biggest races, the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, with McMurray. It finished second with McMurray in the two next biggest races, the Southern 500 at Darlington and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, and won arguably the next biggest at Talladega with Harvick.
It has all three RCR drivers in the Chase, with Harvick 184 points clear of the field in first.
And you can't have a better weekend than this past one, from topping the practice charts with multiple drivers, winning the pole with Montoya, and finishing first, second, fourth and sixth in the race.
Not to mention that Montoya led the most laps (86) before a late tire strategy and ensuing crash ruined his afternoon.
"It was a special day," said Gilmore, proud that his behind-the-scene guys are getting the credit they deserve.
This is the best example of, shall we say, the new-age NASCAR. Because of tough economic times, few organizations are structured like they were five years ago. Most entities have aligned or merged with another for survival's sake.
Can you say ECR, EGR and RCR 10 times real fast?
Neither was getting to this point. ECR is a combination of the former engine departments at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and RCR. EGR is a combination of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. RCR's name hasn't changed, but it has been the benefactor of both.
It all sounds somewhat dysfunctional, but when you talk to the people and see how they've married, it works.
"All the stuff we're involved in, we've determined this is what it takes for us to continue to carry on and be strong enough to keep things together and be competitive and move forward based on what the world has thrown at us," said Bob Dell, the engine shop liaison between EGR and ECR. "It boils down to, 'OK, life has changed and this is how it's going to be to keep on living.'
"Obviously, we've done that."
Days such as Sunday make it all worthwhile and somewhat helps them ease past the pain of seeing longtime friends laid off and entire organizations ripped apart because money and sponsorship wasn't there.
For Gilmore, it also reminds him that the late Dale Earnhardt still has a place in this sport, even though DEI as a race shop ceased to exist.
"I know it's important to both Richard [Childress] and Teresa [Earnhardt] to keep that name out there," Gilmore said of the owners of RCR and DEI.
Earnhardt always took pride in his engine department, hiring people such as Gilmore from Hendrick Motorsports to make it the best in the business. He'd be proud of what ECR has done, winning all the races he most wanted to, and even more proud that Gilmore and about 40 percent of the ECR employees came from DEI.
"We just had a lunch," said Bobby Dell Jr., McMurray's engine tuner and a former DEI employee. "Some of the engine people came down [to Concord] and they had some of the originals who were at DEI. That made me realize what they started there is still alive."
Buried in the back corner of RCR's 75-acre complex may be the equalizer to Hendrick Motorsports in the Chase. The engines that come out of here have the power and reliability to give four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson & Co. a run for the trophy.
It likely won't be one of the EGR cars, which have been fast all season but had misfortunes that cost them big point days. McMurray is 151 out of the final playoff spot with six races to go, and Montoya isn't on the radar.
But one of the RCR cars definitely could contend, and ECR will play a big role.
"I think we caught Hendrick," said Harry Creedle as he worked steadily in the fit-up department.
He paused, then deadpanned, "Might be ahead of them."
With the new cars so equal in design, a few more horsepower here and there is a huge difference. Steve Hmiel, who heads up the competition department at EGR, knows it's raised the level of competition for his cars and made victories such as Sunday's possible.
"Grip goes away when tires wear," Hmiel said. "Having the ability to run 500 laps as hard as you want may not be there. Still, when you push the pedal down when you've got a good motor, confidence is always there.
"I credit it for two to five positions in qualifying and three to five positions in the race. It's been huge in the success we've had. That's what ECR has brought us."
Gilmore knows what it's like to be with the best. He worked at HMS for eight years before moving to DEI as the head engine builder in 1998. He worked with and roomed on the road with Randy Dorton, considered -- at the time of his tragic death in 2004 in a plane crash that took many lives of HMS employees -- the king of engine builders.
Much of what Gilmore does at ECR has Dorton's fingerprints.
"Randy, when he walked in the place over there, he wanted to win everything," Gilmore said. "He was very, very organized. He always looked five years down the road. That's probably the biggest thing he taught me: Look way, way ahead, because the sport is always changing."
Few understand change and looking ahead better than Gilmore. He watched DEI go from a contender to almost nonexistent after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving for HMS after the 2007 season. He watched his own life flash before his eyes after an aneurysm nearly ended his career in October of that year.
He definitely had his doubts about whether the engine merger with DEI and RCR could work. A lot of people did.
"Everybody says change is good," said Danny Lawrence, the trackside manager for ECR. "With that being said, I'm an engine guy. I know when something is running well and when you turn it upside down like that you have your concerns and it takes a while to get things running smooth again.
"There were pretty serious growing pains at first."
The organization worked out of two shops the first year, and employees were traveling as far as 150 miles roundtrip a day. Many still do -- including Gilmore -- although Childress and Teresa Earnhardt pay for two vans to drive those that need the help.
There also were differences in philosophies.
"I know how Richard did things and what Richard wants, and then you've got a lot of other people that come in that don't understand the Childress way," said Lawrence, who was a longtime employee of RCR before changing caps. "We had to give a little bit. We freed up some stuff. The new guys had to understand Richard's way, too.
"We have a happy medium, and it actually complemented each other."
It took a few years to get the full impact. RCR struggled last season, but because the EGR cars were running fast, didn't waste time on engine research to fix the problem.
Days like Sunday make it all seem worthwhile.
"It's what builds character, when you go through something like that," Gilmore said. "Life's a test. When something like that happens it shows you've got to be tough and go through those times."
The numbers say it is working. ECR engines have four wins this season compared to none in 2009. They have 26 top-5s in 19 races compared to 21 in 36 races a year ago. They already have 50 top-10s compared to 58.
And when ECR employees use the word "they," they mean it.
In this building there are no favorites. RCR or EGR driver -- it doesn't matter as long as one takes the checkered flag. Heck, Gilmore insists the best engine last weekend actually went to Casey Mears in the No. 36 car of Tommy Baldwin Racing that also uses ECR engines because Childress wanted to help him get in the race.
It didn't happen.
But everything else fell into place, making the mood around ECR on Monday busy, but unbelievably upbeat.
"What Richie has done is put together the right people," said Dell Sr., who worked on the No. 5 car at HMS when Gilmore was there. "He's taken the best of both worlds and put them in the right spots.
"I always like to say we're ECR-EGR-RCR. We're all tied together. It's been a good marriage. For something kind of thrown together, 'Here's the best way to survive,' it's turned out to be a good, positive thing."
Maybe one day soon there will even be a new trophy for NASCAR's best engine builder in the case in the lobby. The last one came from 2002, when Lawrence wore RCR on his cap.
"We definitely want one," said Gilmore, when reminded that HMS has won the past four and 14 overall. "We've done a lot of amazing things this year."
Nothing was more amazing than Sunday, but naturally that created more work for Gilmore.
"I don't mind at all," Gilmore said. "I'm really just a behind-the-scenes guy."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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