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For Harvick and RCR, an urgency to take the next step

December 13, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Kevin Harvick finished third in the points, but his drive to end RCR's championship drought had him pushing for changes. (Getty Images)

Team's flagship driver makes push for institutional changes to end title drought

It has been more than 17 years since Richard Childress won a championship in NASCAR's premier division, a span that dates back to Dale Earnhardt's final title in 1994. Since then, Rick Hendrick has won 10 crowns, Joe Gibbs three, and Jack Roush two. This past season, Tony Stewart claimed a title with a revamped organization that was essentially just three years old.

For a team as proud as RCR, that kind of championship drought can be grating. This is, after all, an outfit with its roots very much deep in old-school NASCAR, from an owner who started out as an independent driver to a shop complex that's a little closer to the foothills where the sport got its start. They've done everything else -- won races in bunches, claimed a handful of Nationwide Series titles, this past season won a second Camping World Truck Series crown behind Austin Dillon. That long-sought-after next Cup championship, though, still lingers out there. And some are getting tired of waiting for it.

"There were a lot of people that were mad about the decisions that were made internally, but at some point you've got to make the hard decisions and you've got to be real about what you think is the best situations to put yourself in to win championships."

--KEVIN HARVICK

Like Kevin Harvick. RCR's flagship driver, who finished third in final points each of the last two years, seems to take the drought personally. After this past season's penultimate race at Phoenix, with the end of another title-less season approaching, Harvick and Childress sat down and began talking about changes to the organization, changes that might help make the vehicles go faster and bolster what would become a three-car outfit in 2012. A few weeks later, those changes became reality. Gil Martin, formerly Harvick's crew chief, was reassigned to director of team operations. Shane Wilson, crew chief for departing driver Clint Bowyer, was paired with Harvick. And Drew Blickensderfer, formerly the crew chief for David Ragan at Roush Fenway Racing, was hired to work with Jeff Burton.

Harvick and Martin had enjoyed a very productive two seasons together, winning seven races and becoming mainstays in the title hunt. But taking that final step, from championship contender to championship winner, has proven difficult, like a golfer trying to go from a five-handicap to scratch. Harvick said there was no dispute, no falling-out between him and his former crew chief. But as we've heard so often over the course of this already-active offseason, it became a matter of making moves in order to keep from falling behind.

"As an organization, we have to pull together more in the same direction," Harvick said recently. "We've been more on board this year than we have been in the past, but what do we have to do to take that next step? That was my biggest question. What do we have to do to win a championship? As we sat down and things evolved into what they are today, bringing Drew in from Roush, obviously they've had a lot of speed in their cars, and bringing kind of an outside thought process in from where we were always opens up a lot of minds and a lot of directions for our race team. It wasn't that Gil did anything wrong, or we had an argument or a fight or anything like that. As we evaluated things, this is what we thought would take us in a different direction to get us better. You look around, and if you're not doing it, somebody else is going to make the changes."

RCR had some room in which to make those changes, given Bowyer's departure for Michael Waltrip Racing and the scaling back of a former four-car team to Harvick, Burton, and Paul Menard. With personnel from four programs needing to be disseminated among three, clearly changes were at hand. And RCR has enjoyed some of its best years as a three-car organization, most notably 2008 and 2010, when Childress placed all three of his vehicles in the Chase. This past year, Harvick was the only RCR driver to qualify for the playoff. Given the team's history, it's completely reasonable to think that Childress' organization would have benefitted solely by the contraction alone.

But four cars or three, one driver in the Chase or all of them, that championship pursuit has still proven fruitless -- which is why Harvick lobbied for changes. The hope is that all three teams will be better, that Blickensderfer will bring over some of whatever magic that made all the cars so fast at Roush, that Harvick will find that little bit of whatever it is that will get him over that final hump. Because at this point in his career, at 36 years old and with 18 wins and a dozen seasons behind him, finishing third holds about the same appeal as winding up 10th.

"Pretty much. Especially at the point we're at," he said. "We've been fortunate enough to win all the big races, and we've won Nationwide championships and Truck championships [at RCR]. And it's been a long time since Richard has won the Cup championship, and I'd love to win it for the first time. So it was time to get aggressive and make the changes we thought would be necessary. There were a lot of people that were mad about the decisions that were made internally, but at some point you've got to make the hard decisions and you've got to be real about what you think is the best situations to put yourself in to win championships."

For Harvick, that means finding some mixture of the victories he recorded in 2011 and the consistency he had the season before. Although he won more this past season, he often struggled to get good finishes on the days he didn't, something of a departure from an RCR team that has long prided itself on finishing laps and being near the front at the end. "[We] just didn't have that consistency, and we didn't have that speed it took at the end of the year," he said. "We were always scrambling to get those sixth-, seventh-place finishes, and that wasn't good enough."

Enter Wilson, with whom Harvick won 13 races on the Nationwide tour in 2006-07. The driver does not anticipate a transition period. "I expect to go to Daytona and have a chance to win. That's what I expect," he said. "I've worked with Shane before. We worked together in 2006 and 2007, and he's been a part of the shop. If we were bringing in someone that was totally out of the system, maybe I would buy that. But for us, I expect to have results right off the bat. We didn't do this to waste six months."

For RCR, and Harvick in particular, there seems an urgency -- it's time to take the next step. The fact that Stewart in three years can win a championship with a team that had been struggling to just make races only underscores how long the Childress organization has been flailing away trying to get back to the top rung of the ladder. Jimmie Johnson's reign is over, and anything seems possible for anyone again. At RCR, pairing Wilson and Harvick is only part of what the driver hopes will be a more forward-thinking approach, one that may result in faster cars and perhaps, finally, the championship that has evaded Richard Childress for 17 years.

"This isn't a one-horse show here," Harvick said. "If you look, and I'm going to use the Roush organization as an example, all their cars were fast. They won a few races, but when you take the racing element -- we do that part really good. We're racers. We can scramble and do those things. We've got to be on the front side of that curve pushing the sport to the next level, and pushing our race teams. And the 29 team specifically needs to take that flag and run with it, and push things at our own company."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch season highlights for Richard Childress Racing's four-car team below: