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Childress team adjusts to life without a legend

The absence of Dale Earnhardt is being felt as things turn sour for the three-car team.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 23, 2002

Robby Gordon made a routine move, steering the No. 31 Chevrolet toward pit road at Richmond International Raceway, when something -- peeling pavement, maybe -- caused him to careen into the water barrels serving as a cushion at the end of the pit-road wall.


One of the season's most bizarre sights -- Winston Cup racing's first on-track water fountain -- seemed not the least bit unusual given the way 2002 has unfolded for Richard Childress Racing.

What next: Falling anvils?

With two top-10 finishes for its three Winston Cup teams this season, RCR is headlong into a rebuilding phase that was inevitable when seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed at the 2001 Daytona 500.

If only Earnhardt were here to help.

"If you look back, Dale was probably our biggest cheerleader," said Childress, in his 28th season as a Winston Cup owner. "When we were down or behind, he got 100 percent behind the race team because we had been in that situation with him three or four times. Now, we've got to pull together as a team.

"It's a big job."

Last season, RCR not only endured the painful months after Earnhardt's fatal crash, it flourished. Energetic newcomer Kevin Harvick won two races and rookie of the year in the renumbered No. 29. Gordon replaced Mike Skinner in the No. 31 and won the season-ending race at New Hampshire. A third team, with 2000 Busch Grand National champion Jeff Green at the wheel, landed a big-time sponsor and readied for 2002.

RCR barely skipped a beat.

"Going into last year, we had our stuff together at the beginning of the year with all the intentions of winning the championship with Dale," crew chief Kevin Hamlin said. "Even with Kevin plugged in there, we made those changes show."

But Childress sensed a change toward the end of 2001, when the physical demands of running the complete BGN and Winston Cup schedules began to take a toll on Harvick. After a short offseason, the loss of Earnhardt finally took its toll on the organization.

Hard times followed.

Eleven races in 2002, RCR does not have a driver in the top 20. Green is 24th with a season-best finish of 11th at California. Gordon is 29th with a season-best 12th at California. Harvick, parked by NASCAR at Martinsville for aggressive driving, is 31st.

"When we're struggling a little bit, it's easy for Kevin to get out of balance and say, 'What am I doing wrong?' " Hamlin said. "He's not doing anything wrong. He's still racing hard and doing everything he knows how to do. We're just missing it."

Harvick, who many expected to compete for the championship this season, said the team has tried to turn the punishment NASCAR doled out into a positive.

"We sat down and had a lot of time to talk to each other," Harvick said. "Now, we understand how each other is feeling. We're a race team now. People are expressing their feelings to me; I'm expressing my feelings to them and when we get done we're all on the same page. That's good."

RCR's hard times are compounded by growing pains. To accommodate the third team, RCR built a new building at its sprawling headquarters in Welcome, N.C. Childress is running two BGN teams, plus the No. 3 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in two BGN races. He also has an interest in the open-wheel car Gordon will drive in Sunday's Indianapolis 500 before hopping a plane to Concord, N.C., for the Coca-Cola 600.

"He bit off a lot," Gordon said of Childress. "You wouldn't think it would be much to go from two Winston Cup teams to three, but we didn't have the facility to do it when the opportunity came his way. So, we've not only been trying to race this season but build a new race shop. He's a busy man, and it's hard to keep your fingers on all of it."

Childress feels bad.

All three of his drivers, he said, are better than the cars RCR is giving them to drive. He has asked them to be patient and have faith that he will find the answers.

In the past, solutions usually were found during hunting or fishing trips, when Childress would hash things out with his best friend of 20 years, who just happened to be a racing legend. But this time, Childress must solve the riddles without Earnhardt.

"To be successful, you've got to make change," Childress said. "This concept of three drivers, one team is going to be a great concept when we get it put together. Right now, we're paying the price for it. You can't throw this year away. You have to fight it all the way.

"But we've got our work cut out for us."

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