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Daytona 500 win a big step for reshaped Richard Childress Racing

Austin Dillon is hoping his Daytona win will be a springboard to more 2018 success. Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

The offseason didn't treat Richard Childress Racing all that kindly. When an organization cuts three teams from its roster, it leads to frustrating times.

Austin Dillon likes to say RCR is leaner and meaner. But that also means fewer employees thanks to RCR going from five Xfinity Series teams to three and from three Cup teams to two.

The organization won't say how many employees lost their jobs, but it clearly was at least dozens and possibly significantly more. RCR has about 425 employees at the moment, Dillon indicated Friday. In the past, the organization has claimed to have more than 500.

Although Dillon's Daytona 500 victory is no predictor of success for the rest of the year, it did provide a spark and confidence for an organization that sorely needs it in 2018. The series heads to its first 1.5-mile track this weekend with practice starting Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"We went way overboard when we had five Xfinity teams," team owner Richard Childress said. "It took away from our effort. ... It's special to have the group we have got there.

"I could just see the energy in everyone at RCR -- before we won this race, everyone was just sky high."

Dillon, especially, needs to have confidence in his team. Not about whether it will reach its potential but that the people have a bond, that they are in it for one another.

When Slugger Labbe was released as crew chief this past May, it was a typical racing move when a driver struggles combined with the driver being the grandson of the team owner, which adds angst for crewmen who might believe their ideas are better than the driver's. Labbe, at first, brought out a little bit of the fire in Dillon, but when things went poorly, they couldn't mix the competitive fire with confidence in each other. They lacked the communication needed.

In the first race without Labbe, Dillon won with Justin Alexander atop the box. After that, his average finish was 18.25, compared with 20.7 with Labbe as the crew chief, showing Dillon had made some progress but not a ton.

"Alexander was the guy that came through and just brought it all together," Dillon said. "We're still trying to win races. This is the beginning.

"He fits the puzzle because he can communicate with all these guys and lets everyone do their job. ... He understands what it is to be a leader in NASCAR. It's a different job than what it used to be. He takes that [approach] and runs with it."

Dillon wants his crew to have a familial bond. He has had crew members live at his house at various times, especially those who are just starting out with the team.

"Austin wants people around him that he feels like are committed to him," spotter Andy Houston said. "He is really a family-oriented type person. ... He's very loyal. Whenever changes are made throughout the years, it's hard on him. He doesn't like it."

RCR's outlook for the season depends partly on the performance of the new Camaro but also on RCR making improvements. Paul Menard decided early last year that he would make a change, a signal that he lacked confidence the team could improve.

Childress brought in good friend Andy Petree, a former RCR crew chief and a former team owner, to run the competition department. It shifted the role of Dr. Eric Warren to focus on engineering.

After time trials for Daytona to set the lineups for the qualifying races, Petree was upset with the team's performance and asked around about what they could do better. Dillon was happy that ideas were already being sought to make things better.

"We've got a lot of work to do, and that [win] definitely kind of kicks us forward in the right direction," Dillon said. "Downsizing was a great thing for RCR because we got closer together. The family got tighter.

"The ideas are going to get better and better. Andy Petree coming in brought a new racer's attitude to our shop."

RCR, as a two-car Cup team, might need to rely more on its alliances. It continued its affiliation with Germain Racing and Leavine Family Racing, and JTG Daugherty Racing is using Childress engines but has a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. Richard Petty Motorsports has moved onto the RCR campus and is now an affiliate, getting chassis and engines from RCR.

But RCR will have to make the right decisions at the right times, considering how little margin of error it appears to have. Childress didn't want the team to run the backup car in the Daytona 500, but the team felt there was too much damage after its qualifying race Thursday. Dillon doesn't like to run the bottom at restrictor-plate tracks but needed to do so Sunday to get to the front.

"I knew we had to do something different at RCR, and I brought Andy Petree in," Childress said. "Eric Warren is now looking after our engineering, but Andy Petree adds so much more to our racing operation, and just the whole group that we've built around the 3 and the 31 [of Dillon and Ryan Newman] with two cars, it's given us a lot more focus. ... The future is going to be bright for us, I promise you.

"We tested at Vegas, and our intermediate cars are going to be great, so we're really looking forward to Atlanta."