News & Media

Menzer: Harvick puts Childress in Martinsville spotlight

April 04, 2011, Joe Menzer,

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- After 15 years and numerous heartaches, RCR back in paper clip's Victory Lane

The Richard Childress Racing complex in Welcome, N.C., sits roughly 67 miles from Martinsville Speedway.

But for the past 15 years and a total of 30 Sprint Cup Series races, RCR sent a squadron of race cars to the .526-mile short track twice a year, only to have them all come home empty-handed. All the grandfather clocks, which go to the winners of events at Martinsville, found homes in other places.

"We all want to see Dale Jr. win a race. If one of our four cars can't win, I'd like to see him win. But you don't want to let him win at your expense. "


It wasn't just the other mega-teams in NASCAR that beat out RCR on a regular basis, either. While it's true that each of the 13 races prior to last Sunday were won by either Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports, and that others were claimed by Penske Racing, Roush Racing and even a past-its-prime Petty Enterprises, other victories were claimed by smaller operations headed by such owners as Cal Wells III, Robert Yates, Larry McClure and even Ricky Rudd in a car driven by, well, Ricky Rudd.

Until Kevin Harvick won the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at the paper clip for RCR on Sunday, the last driver to have won at Martinsville in a RCR car was the late Dale Earnhardt in the fall of 1995.

"It has been a long time," Childress said. "To be so close to home, you always want to win here and in Charlotte and places like that. For Kevin to take the big win was really special.

"I just walked by [the Cup garage in Martinsville] and I happened to think and look over there where that old 3 car [of Earnhardt's] was tore down. I don't know where they will be tearing us down, but that brought back a memory as I walked in [to the media center for post-race interviews]."

Irony abounds

The irony is that to get back to Victory Lane in Martinsville, Harvick and Childress had to do something they really didn't want to do. They had to beat the son of the driver who last got RCR to Victory Lane at the place.

Much maligned for his struggles on the track since his highly-publicized jump from driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports prior to the 2008 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was attempting to break a 98-race winless streak at Martinsville on Sunday. And after taking over the lead from Kyle Busch on Lap 480 of the 500-lap event, he seemed poised to finally do so until Harvick ran him down with only three to go.

Even the ultra-competitive Harvick, who won his second consecutive race and thus has twice as many wins in the past two weeks as Earnhardt has in three-plus seasons at Hendrick, admitted to having mixed emotions about what transpired.

"It was cool to see him back up there in contention for a win and to race with Dale Junior and win at Martinsville," said Harvick, who replaced the elder Earnhardt in an RCR car after Earnhardt died in a last-lap accident during the 2001 Daytona 500. "It's like Richard talked about, seeing the 3 car and having memories of the 3 car being torn down here.

"It was just a lot of fun. I know the fans want to see him win. I want to see him win. We all want to see Dale Jr. win. It would be great for the sport and I think [Sunday] went a long ways toward showing how competitive they can be racing for wins, and that's what we all need. We all need him to win."

But only to a point, and certainly not at Harvick's own expense or his owner's expense.

"I'm not going to back down," Harvick admitted.

Childress was glad to hear it, although, of course, he already knew that about Harvick.

"I'm like Kevin," he said. "We all want to see Dale Jr. win a race. If one of our four cars can't win, I'd like to see him win. But you don't want to let him win at your expense. Kevin did what he had to do right there at the end and I was proud of him.

"Dale Junior will win races. He will come back. We have been in that situation. We have had a long dry spell, so I know what it would have meant if he could have won that race. But like I say, we did what we had to do and that was win the race."

The other side

On the other side, Earnhardt's own crew chief, Steve Letarte, said he had no illusions about the win being in the No. 88's bag as the final laps wound down Sunday. He knew Harvick would be coming, and coming hard.

"I've learned a long time ago that you never have it until they give you the trophy," Letarte said. "I knew the 29 was good. The run before [the last one] he drove away and left us all. When he got inside the 18 [of Kyle Busch], I was hoping Kyle could hold him up a little bit. But he was so much better that he just went on by -- and then a little later, he went on by us.

"But it was good. Dale gave us a shot at it. I'm proud of him. He drove it to the bitter edge and brought our car home in second, and that's what we needed."

Meanwhile, what Childress needed was Harvick's victory to get the Martinsville monkey off his organization's back. When one questioner asked how Harvick pulled out the victory after "struggling" back in the middle of the pack much of the afternoon, Letarte smiled and replied: "Man, that's not struggling. That's Kevin Harvick for the first two-thirds. We learned that [a week earlier] at California, and [Sunday] we learned it again here at Martinsville."

In other words, you can't win if you don't finish. Harvick said he learned that long, long ago while racing late models on a limited family budget. It's just taken him some time to transfer the patience he has preached to himself in his head to the cockpit of the car he's driving in tight quarters at places like Martinsville.

"I'm just the highest-strung person -- and I don't know, I turn into this lunatic when I get in the car and I wind up apologizing more than I do anything else," Harvick said. "You just turn into this crazed animal; I can't explain it."

He didn't need to apologize for anything Sunday, as far as Childress and everyone else at RCR were concerned. Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief, perhaps put the victory in the best perspective for all the folks who toil there.

"For me, it's a great day because of the fact we've been so bad here," Martin said. "I've been coming here with RCR for 10 years -- and up until last year, we were hit-and-miss with all three teams or however many we brought here. We had opportunities to win both races last year and messed up and didn't do it.

"So to come here and win our second in a row [overall], it's a special feeling for me. It's never happened for me before -- so on a personal note, it's a great deal. But as far as the company goes, golly, I just don't know what to say. It's awesome to win for Budweiser and for all the new sponsors we have on board. It's just a really good day."

It was, without a doubt, the best day Richard Childress and any of his employees have had at Martinsville Speedway in more than 15 years. That's saying something, and was well worth celebrating.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.