Childress has team pointed right way
Richard Childress might have gotten the proverbial monkey off his back Sunday, but he doesn't mind if members of the motorsports media take up residence there.
After all, what fun is winning if you don't get to smile at people and admonish them a bit, reminding them that you promised to be back?
"I do appreciate you all being on our back because that gives us drive to go, and that's your job when you have to do that," Childress said after Kevin Harvick's win in the Food City 500 broke Richard Childress Racing's lengthy winless streak. "We've got so many good people that had to go back and regroup this winter and do a lot of things and had to redo our cars, our aero program, our engines.
"We aren't where we want to be yet, but this is a sign of accomplishment that we're on the way to being where we want to be. We're not there, but we know we've got a lot of work to do yet."
In a perfect world, Childress will return his operation to the top of the Nextel Cup Series, back where it was when Dale Earnhardt was winning championship after championship in a black No. 3 Chevrolet.
Of course, it has been a long time and a lot has happened since those days. Earnhardt's last title came in 1994, and the likes of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Racing have dominated ever since. Those teams have won nine of the last 10 championships, with the other being brought home by Dale Jarrett and Robert Yates Racing.
In the interim, RCR has grown to three cars and had to continue after Earnhardt's tragic death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick won twice that year as Earnhardt's successor and won a race each of the next two years.
Robby Gordon also won three times with the team between 2001 and 2004, but the operation was still a shell of its former self. And with Childress often taking time to oversee his other business interests, there were times when it was easy to question whether the team would ever truly get back on top.
Childress, though, has committed himself to playing a more hands-on role with the team again, saying he'll let others pay more attention to his non-racing endeavors. He's a racer at heart, and his goal is to get back to the front.
Though he's not there yet, at least he's back in the winner's circle with Harvick. The two hadn't been there since the 2003 Brickyard 400. Childress' last Cup win -- before Bristol -- was Gordon's victory at Watkins Glen in 2003, a week after Harvick's success at Indianapolis.
Not surprisingly, the drought had been wearing on both driver and owner.
"I think it wears you out in a lot of different ways," Harvick said. "Sponsors start to look at you and say, 'Why aren't you winning?' You know, you start to look at each other and say, 'What do we have to do?' We kept working at it, and Richard has made a lot of changes, and that's the biggest reason everything has turned around.
"Some people may not think, or know, how much has gone on. But when you look at the rosters, our team is pretty much the same, but you look at the No. 31 team, we brought Jeff [Burton]] in partway through last year, and he and Kevin Hamlin have worked well together. He came from a team [at Roush Racing] that raised a lot of scenarios and has had a lot of success over the past few years. And bringing Felipe Lopez in [as Dave Blaney's crew chief has helped]. I could sit here and go on and on. But, yeah, losing sucks. Losing sucks bad."
Having been through the highest of highs and the worst low one can imagine in the sport, Childress knows the volatile nature of the beast.
"I think in this sport, it can humble you as quick as anything. You can be on top and win championships and be there," Childress said. "We went a couple of long stretches [with Earnhardt] without winning races. It makes you strong. You've got to have it in your guts and you've got to have heart and you've got to have a passion for winning. If you want to sit back and let it ride, you can, but we owe it to too many people not to go out and try our best and win, and that's what pushes you to do it."
In the past, much was made of the driver lineup at RCR, as many felt the chemistry between Harvick and Gordon simply wasn't there. The third car, meanwhile, never could settle on a driver -- with the likes of Jeff Green, Steve Park and Johnny Sauter taking turns in the ride before Dave Blaney settled into what's now the No. 07 Chevrolet.
Harvick says the current mix is a good one, though he stresses he and Gordon actually were getting along quite well the last year-and-a-half they worked together.
Still, he says Burton's approach and his proven track record have helped calm the team.
"He brings a different attitude. He approaches it differently. And that's really made me a lot calmer and more relaxed," Harvick said. "It's not like [everyone's asking], 'What do you think we should do?' and everyone comes to the 29 team and everything is riding on the 29's back. Now it's the 29, 31 and 07. They all run good.
"If there's a week where one of them doesn't run good, you can go to the other two cars because one of them has probably run good. It's a totally different atmosphere. Everybody's got the same goal.
"I saw Dave after the race and he was pumping his fist as hard as I was pumping my fist, so I think that's pretty cool. And I know Jeff is right there with us. It's really cool to have guys like that where there's not really huge egos. The first thing I do is step down and let your guard down. You don't have those guys out there running to prove they can outrun you. Everybody is there to try to win races. When one car wins, it's a win for everybody. So, that makes life a lot easier."
And a lot happier if you're Childress.
Harvick would like to add to that joy this weekend with a win at Martinsville. In 2002, NASCAR held him out of this race after an incident in the Craftsman Truck Series race at the track a day earlier.
It's a track he has been good at; now it's time to win there.
"I don't know if I'm any hungrier," he said. "I know that we've run really well there the past few years and led a lot of laps and been in contention to win the race and just had little things happen. We go up there with the same inspiration to win the race as we would every other week.
"Martinsville is definitely one of those places we've run well over the past few years and feel our chances are really good there, so we're excited and after you win a race and, as Richard says, you get a little mo', or momentum, on your side, it's something that hopefully you can run with."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.