WELCOME, N.C. — There’s a sign at the top of the road leading into Richard Childress Racing trumpeting next month’s season-opening Daytona 500.
“Can U Feel it!” it shouts at everyone making the turn onto Childress property.
There’s no mistaking the excitement inside the RCR complex, where one of NASCAR’s storied race teams is certain it can end Jimmie Johnson’s five-year grip on the Sprint Cup championship.
“This year is the year to kick Jimmie off that throne. It’s going to be RCR. I feel certain,” Childress said Tuesday during a stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s annual media tour.
It was the loudest shot fired so far this offseason toward Johnson and mighty Hendrick Motorsports, which have been beating up RCR and everyone else in NASCAR for the better part of a decade.
But Childress has poured a seemingly endless amount of resources into his race team, which rebounded from a miserable 2009 season to become NASCAR’s comeback story of the year. RCR put all three of its drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, and despite cheating allegations that derailed Clint Bowyer’s title bid, Kevin Harvick went down to the wire with Johnson for the title.
Although Harvick settled for third in the final standings, the overall improvement at RCR was enough to convince everyone the team is capable of continuing its forward progress.
“I’m glad Richard has the confidence to say we can win it — I’d be real nervous if he didn’t,” driver Jeff Burton said. “We believe we can. Other teams do, too, especially this time of year, everybody beats their chest pretty hard.
“But the fact is there are a lot of capable people at RCR who can get it done. There’s something to be learned from coming close and not getting it done.”
It’s been a long time coming for RCR, which won its last Cup championship in 1994 with the late Dale Earnhardt.
The organization thought it was championship-ready in 2001, only to lose Earnhardt in a fatal accident on the last lap of the season-opening Daytona 500.
The decade since has been a trying cycle of ups and downs for Childress, who weathered that awful 2001 season only to see the team’s production fall off, improve, then fall off again. Adding a fourth team in 2009 stretched the organization too thin, and when all four drivers failed to make the Chase, Childress ordered massive restructuring.
It was clear early last season that RCR had improved: Harvick won three races, Bowyer won two and Burton came close in several races to earning his own trip to Victory Lane. Harvick also led the points for most of the “regular season” and was in contention for the title all the way to the season finale.
“It was a great season compared to the season that we had the year before and hopefully we can build upon that and make that better,” Harvick said. “We want to be as good as we were last year. We want that trophy. That’s what we’re out to get.”
Childress, when pressed, initially tried to back away from his confidence about RCR’s title chances this season. But so certain he’s got a shot this year, his backtracking didn’t get him very far.
“Nothing lasts forever in life, and (Johnson’s) time will run out,” Childress said. “When it does, RCR will be there with these drivers to win that championship. You get a gut feeling, and I’ve got that feeling this is the year.
“We’re going to throw everything at it we can, and if we don’t win it won’t be because we didn’t give everything we got.”
RCR first will have to prove it has learned from the growing pains it suffered when it expanded to four teams in 2009. The team cut Casey Mears loose last year because of a lack of sponsorship, and flourished with the three teams.
But Paul Menard — and the sponsorship from his father’s Midwest-based hardware chain — became available and Childress jumped at the opportunity to expand again. It’s led many to wonder just why Childress thinks he can get it right this time.
“We are a lot more prepared this year. I don’t think we were as prepared when we did the fourth team (in 2009),” Childress said. “We thought we could do a lot of stuff with some of the same personnel and just add a team. It doesn’t work like that. You have to add a lot more personnel.”
RCR vice president of competition Mike Dillon said they’ve brought in 50 new employees since signing Menard last year, and Burton believes the team is financially stronger this go around.
“I think this is the right fit,” Burton said. “I think Richard is without a doubt a championship car owner and he gives a tremendous amount of tools to work with, and it’s up to us to take advantage of it.”