Waiting for the real RCR to emerge
July 01, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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It was one of those things we haven't seen at the race track too often recently, and we're not talking about the winner brandishing a bloody paw. Before he accidentally cut his right hand on a broken champagne bottle, Brad Keselowski did an effective job of slicing up the field at Kentucky Speedway, which might explain why Ryan Newman's best finish of this season got lost on a Saturday night defined by Team Penske domination and emergency medical care.
He may have needed a few two-tire stops to keep up with track position, and like most everyone else he was no match for Keselowski in the end. But Newman's eventual third-place result may very well stand as the most complete effort this season by a Richard Childress Racing driver, given that the No. 31 car qualified well and spent the majority of the evening in the top five. It was another of those flashes -- like Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500, and Paul Menard at Las Vegas and Michigan -- that make you curious about exactly what this team might be capable of, given how far below the radar RCR has flown all year.
"It's something to build on, for sure," Newman said afterward. "It doesn't mean we're going to go out and win the next race, but it gives us some confidence, and confidence is very powerful in our sport."
Is RCR an elite team? It certainly has been over the course of its history -- six titles, 105 victories, and third-place finishes in three of the past four championship races speak for themselves. But in the context of this season, the first in forever without mainstay Kevin Harvick, that question is more difficult to answer. In comparison to other programs with similar legacies and playoff aspirations, RCR hasn't led many laps, hasn't scored many top-five finishes, hasn't really been in a position to win. The fact that it took 17 races for Newman, now easily the organization's most accomplished driver, to crack the top five probably speaks volumes in and of itself.
And yet, living up to a longstanding RCR reputation, all three of the team's cars have been amazingly consistent, to the point where it's not outlandish to envision all of them making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, barring a glut of new winners between now and the regular season finale. Newman may not have been spectacular before Saturday, but he's also avoided major failures and stands a very steady eighth in points. Menard has finished 15th or better in sixth of his last eight starts, and is right there in 11th. Dillon has been quiet since winning the pole for the Daytona 500, but the rookie has maintained a competitive points position in 18th, and should be able to improve on that as he visits tracks for a second time.
That said, this same trio has led a combined 58 laps all season, the lowest among all the power teams in NASCAR's top series, and on unrestricted tracks hasn't yet shown the potential to get to Victory Lane.
"Our average is good, which is still a part of getting yourself into the Chase if there are not 16 winners," Newman said at Kentucky. "So, we have to win. We want to win. If you're going to win the championship, you’re probably going to have to win something. I don't see that the winner of the championship doesn't have a race victory under his belt."
Given what we've seen thus far from RCR, championship talk is probably something of a reach. But when the subject turns to potential race victories that would guarantee at least one RCR car a Chase berth, the timing appears to be right. On the heels of Newman's season-best effort, focus now returns to a Daytona International Speedway layout where the RCR cars were easily the class of the field in the run-up to the Great American Race.
Now, given the disparities in track size and rules packages, what happened this past weekend in the Bluegrass State will likely have little bearing on Saturday night in central Florida. Remember that RCR machines topped the board in Preseason Thunder testing, and then again in Daytona practices, and Dillon's pole run keyed a 1-2-5-10-12 qualifying day assault for cars fielded by RCR or powered by ECR Engines.
Duplicating that feat promises to be a little trickier this time around, because the pole winner will be decided in group qualifying -- a first for Daytona at the Sprint Cup level -- rather than single-car runs. But fast is fast, and RCR has always been a beast on plate venues regardless of which drivers are behind the wheel.
So this weekend presents a prime opportunity for RCR as an organization, and next weekend brings a New Hampshire track that's historically one of Newman's best. If we were to tie on a lobster bib late on the evening of July 13 after the second Childress car in as many weeks had won its way into the playoff -- well, stranger things have happened. But Kentucky, for all its bumps and critics and hand-slashing champions, remains the kind of intermediate track that is so often a barometer of the season as a whole, and for Newman to have RCR's best race on that type of venue makes you wonder if they're at long last finding that extra punch Childress cars had lacked.
"We've made some gains on the race part, don't get me wrong, and the guys on the engine side are always working," Newman said after the Kentucky race. "And there's no doubt that the Hendrick guys have been the strongest this season -- far above, at some trace tracks. But we proved tonight that we've made some gains."
Indeed, for all that RCR prowess on display in the month leading up to the Daytona 500, it was a Hendrick Motorsports driver in Dale Earnhardt Jr. who claimed the Harley J. Earl Trophy, just as cars powered by Hendrick engines have claimed eight of the 16 races contested since. For all practical purposes, RCR is still playing catch-up, as is everyone who doesn't get their engines from a gray-haired man wearing a cap with a slanted H on the front. But despite Earnhardt's victory in February, Daytona is a great equalizer. And despite the rather quiet results turned in by the RCR crowd for much of this season, Newman's run at Kentucky offered a hint of progress.
RCR is still among the most enigmatic teams in NASCAR this season -- it's led 161 fewer laps than the next-lowest major three-car operation on the list (beleaguered Roush Fenway), and yet were the team to sweep the top three spots in Daytona, no one would be surprised. RCR seems completely capable of having all three cars in the championship field come Chicagoland -- and also capable of being completely shut out. The real RCR lies somewhere along that spectrum -- and Saturday night on the high banks of the organization's best race track, the journey begins to find out precisely where.