One of NASCARās most prolific and legendary teams could be left out of NASCARās 16-team playoff for the 2014 Sprint Cup Championship if they fail to earn a trip to victory lane over the next eight races.
When the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season ended, NASCAR Chairman Brian France decided to change the NASCAR Chase qualifying format. He said he wanted to make sure the focus was on winning.
So here we are, 18-races in to the 26-race regular season and the heat is on to win now - or begin focusing on next season.
And one legendary race team - is on the ropes.
Itās hard to believe a team as strong as Richard Childress Racing has managed to go through the first 18-races of the season without taking even one of their three-cars to victory lane. But, thatās exactly how the season has gone for RCR, and the heat is now turned up WFO.
But, does this really come as a shock to anyone? It shouldnāt.
Paul Menard. Ryan Newman. Austin Dillon.
Combined career wins ā 19.
By the way, 18 of those 19 wins belong to Newman. Just sayinā.
No one should be surprised that the boys over at RCR are still searching for their first win of the season.
This is Menardās eighth full season in the Sprint Cup series, and he has one win and only 13 top-5 finishes in 278 career starts. Itās going to be tough to win races if you are only finishing in the top-5 in 4% of your starts. By comparison, NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has finished in the top-5 in 42% of his starts over his 12-year career.
Newman is an accomplished Sprint Cup driver, but heās starting over with a new team which is never easy. He does have 18-career wins, but heās only won six races over the last decade. Newmanās big year was 2003 when he won eight races, and he hasnāt had a multiple win season since 2004.
Dillon is an incredible young talent. But, heās also a rookie. Heās never won a Sprint Cup race - let alone made the Chase or contended for a Sprint Cup championship. This is a learning year for him. The potential is enormous, but so is the learning curve.
Letās be honest about what we have here. 2014 is a rebuilding year for RCR.
In the offseason, they lost veteran driver Kevin Harvick to Stewart-Haas Racing, and they chose not to bring back Jeff Burton in the #31 car. Then, they added the two new drivers to their Sprint Cup garage in Newman and Dillon. Talk about turning over the applecart. Heck, they rolled the applecart down the backstretch at āDega at 200mph.
Now, Iām not sure at this stage of his career Newman thought heād be the old-wily veteran of a race team, but at 36-years old with 12-years of Sprint Cup experience and 18-career wins, thatās exactly who he is now.
Newman has won a lot of races, and heās won big races. Like the Daytona 500. Heās also made the Chase and fought for championships, so he knows what it takes to contend over those final 10-weeks of the season - which are an absolute grind. Newman is a perfect fit for this young race team. Especially for Dillon.
Letās not forget, Dillon is the grandson of team owner Richard Childress. Newmanās hiring is as much about winning races as it is grooming Dillon to be a Sprint Cup champion, and carrying on the RCR championship legacy that Childress built with NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
Newman is a great fit with RCR, and heās the perfect coach for Dillon. Heās a mid-western boy with solid values and a big heart. Those qualities have always been important to Childress, and they are qualities he clearly sees in Newman - and perhaps he didnāt see in Harvick.
So, as much as 2014 is a rebuilding year for RCR it cannot be all about rebuilding and coaching young Dillon. One of their three cars has to make the Chase.
Believe me, a Chase goose egg would not sit well with Childress ā or sponsors.
Sponsors and fans pay money, but tickets & merchandise, and cheer for their drivers to make the Chase and contend for a championship. Those are the facts.
Somehow, some way, one of these RCR cars has to find their way to victory lane over the next eight races. Or someone else will.
You see, the top-16 drivers based on wins and or points make the Chase. There have been 11 different winners through 18-races this season. That leaves five open spots with eight races to go. And, there are some heavy hitters fighting for those final five spots.
Drivers like former champions Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth are still winless and fighting for a Chase birth. Hendrick Motorsports star Kasey Kahne also needs a win to get in, as do Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., and Jamie McMurray.
My guess is that those five spots are going to be filled by race winners, but just to be clear hereās what happens if they donāt.
With NASCARās new Chase qualifying format, wins are really all that matters ā unless there are less than 16-drivers who win races during the 2014 26-race regular season. Then, points come in to play. If less than 16-drivers win races, whoever sits next in points makes the Chase up to and including position 16 in the standings.
Ironically enough, even though all three RCR drivers are winless on the season they are all still in Chase contention based on the current point standings. If the Chase started today, all three drivers would make it in!
If anything, this is a testament to the incredible consistency, and flashes of brilliance, from all three teams. They have all shown signs of life, especially recently.
Dillon scored his first career top-5 finish in the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona to climb five positions in the points to 13th which is good enough to put him 16th on the Chase Grid.
Menard sits 10th in the points after Daytona. This is the first time in his career that heās been in the top-10 this late in the season. He currently sits 14th on the Chase Grid.
Newman has been oh so close to his first RCR win. He finished third at Kentucky and he had a strong car at Daytona. Now, heās headed to New Hampshire and he will certainly be a favorite. Newman is a rockstar at the Magic Mile having scored three career wins at the New Hampshire racetrack. Heās currently eighth in points, but because he is winless he drops back to 13th on the Chase Grid.
Unfortunately for RCR, the Chase doesnāt start today and the likelihood of remaining in the top-16 without winning races is not very good.
But, they do have eight races to make it happen. Three- cars starting eight races. Now, I wasnāt a math major, but Iām pretty sure thatās twenty-four opportunities to make the big dance! And, with Richard Childress leading the way, you would have to say the odds are good.
They might be winless through 18-races, but donāt expect them to stay winless through 26-races.
One of the RCR cars will make the Chase. Not sure which one. And Iām not sure it matters. ā Captain Thunder ā www.CaptainThunderRacing.com