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Winston Cup Series




Wednesday, January 8

New season, new start for RCR
By Rupen Fofaria
ESPN.com

Rupen Fofaria You will never hear Richard Childress complain about NASCAR's short off-season. In fact, he could've done without the six-week blink-of-an-eye and gone straight to Daytona testing.

After a 2003 season in which his three cars placed 17th, 20th and 21st, Childress was ready to start over in '03 right away. He had put up a streak of placing someone (mostly Dale Earnhardt) in the top-10 in 18 of 19 seasons, so 2002 was a tough pill to swallow.

Childress knows many will point to Earnhardt's death as the cause of the slump, saying the tragedy finally caught up to his race team. He may even tell those people they've got a point. But they're also missing the greater point.

Childress expanded to a three-car stable for the first time last season, a move that always takes adjustment. That's why he is so eager to get '03 going -- time working as a team is all the RCR stable needs.

"I'm ready," he said. "I've been ready. 2002 is in the books. It's in the past. We're ready for 2003 and we expect great things."

In 2001, Kevin Harvick was vaulted into the spotlight when he had to replace Earnhardt and he managed to finish ninth in the final standings despite racing one fewer event than all the other leaders. But he did that with Earnhardt's crew and with a full personnel that had primed itself for a championship run under Earnhardt.

One year later, it was Harvick's team. And it was a new situation with two teammates. This time, he ended up racing one fewer event than everyone else (after getting suspended one race at Martinsville, Va.), but finished only 21st. He still managed to win a race at Chicago and he won the International Race of Champions series. But the No. 29 Chevrolet looked nothing like the title contender everyone expected to see.

Richard Childress
Childress won six Winston Cup championships with Dale Earnhardt.

That team had to adjust more than any other in his stable, so experience as a three-car team is most important to the 29. That's just one reason Childress is so anxious for the start of the year.

"For so many years everything we had, all of our resources, went into the Goodwrench Chevy," Childress said. "Even (in 2001), there wasn't one guy (as a teammate), really. All of a sudden last year, we were in a whole new situation."

Although Harvick finished last among RCR's three drivers, he is again expected to perform the best this year. Given midseason crew changes last year and an entire season of adjusting to the new three-stable setup, Childress believes Harvick can start off on the right foot.

And he believes Harvick's teammates Jeff Green and Robby Gordon have what it takes to perform as well, and perhaps once again bid for better, than the 27-year-old.

Green, who was not given much preseason publicity before his first full Cup season last year -- despite having compiled a stellar Busch Grand National resume -- ended up finishing the best of any RCR car last season. He did so by being consistent, though not at any point spectacular.

He notched only four top-fives and six top-10s, but averaged a 20th-place finish throughout the year and stayed out of trouble for the most part. His was the most stable of the three teams last season, giving Childress further reason to believe his group can only improve in '03.

"They had everything together," he said. "Here and there, there are things that we needed to change. But they're one year smarter and that's encouraging."

Gordon, meanwhile, drew some complaints for sometimes displaying that short fuse for which he is reputed. But after a midseason swap of crews with Harvick his was an obviously improved ride and became one which was consistently in position to finish top 10. He went from as low as 31st in the standings to finishing 20th.

For so many years everything we had, all of our resources, went into the Goodwrench Chevy. Even (in 2001), there wasn't one guy, really. All of a sudden last year, we were in a whole new situation.
Richard Childress

And with half a year under their belts, Childress and Gordon said they expect things to be even better for the No. 31.

"I think that (crew) change really made a big difference and it happened right away," Childress said. "And it kept getting better as the communication kept getting better."

"It was a great move for us," Gordon said. "I think starting off the season now with that group in place puts us way ahead of where we were last year."

Childress knows that Earnhardt was the rock of the group. But in his trio of drivers he's got a trio of personalities -- a fast-learning, assertive Harvick, a poised, patient Green and a passionate, teetering-on-the-edge Gordon. Between the three, Childress believes he's got almost everything he lost in Earnhardt the driver.

It just takes a little time for it all to take shape.

"It's hard for me to explain how badly I want to get started," Childress said. "We never really stopped. We've been going all winter at the shop and I'm just very ready to get down to Daytona and start things off on the right foot in February."

Rupen Fofaria is a beat writer for The Raleigh News & Observer and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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