Monday, May 7, 2012

In The Hunt with RCR: Talladega

Thursday night Richard Childress, along with Kenny Bernstein and John Force, were inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Childress, whose drivers have earned him 100 victories at Talladega, said of the honor, “I didn't get here (alone)…it’s all about the people with me. Anytime I receive an award I’m receiving it for the people that’s worked with me over the years – drivers and everyone else.”

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. On Lap 179 of the 188 scheduled at Talladega Superspeedway, all three of the RCR regulars were on the lead lap and poised to make the final run to the checkered flag. Paul Menard sat in third position, eager to take the No. 27 Turtle Wax/Menard's Chevy back to the front. On Lap 184, all three needed repairs. What happened? That's what everyone wanted to know, but the prevailing answer from almost every driver from almost every team was "I don't know what happened, but..."

Still, Team RCR eked out 10th, 17th, and 25th place finishes from the regulars Burton, Menard, and Harvick, respectively. Tony Raines took the No. 33 Little Joe's Autos Chevrolet to the garage with engine failure after only 32 laps, but the rest of the team had solid, if not spectacular, points results for the day despite the condition of the cars at end of the race.

Jeff Burton, No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet

Start: 29th
Finish: 10th
Points Start: 20th
Points Finish: 18th

Jeff Burton brought the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy home in tenth place but it must have felt almost like a win considering the day he'd had. Burton led twice for three laps, gaining a crucial bonus point for his efforts. The race started well and he moved from 29th to 12th by Lap 3. Operating temps caused him to have to drop back to cool off, then on Lap 139 the No. 31 lost fuel pressure and had to make an unscheduled green flag stop. They weren't the only team that had fuel issues in the heat, but Blickensderfer's crew kept focus, and Burton stayed on the lead lap. When the green-white-checkered melee erupted, Burton snaked through to restart 15th, then managed to cross the start/finish line in tenth.

Burton said, "The Cat Racing team never gave up despite some adversity,  and we got a well-earned top-10 finish. " He went on to express the same frustration of many drivers. "Not being able to race the way we want to race is frustrating. Every time we would get in the pack, our water pressure would get real high. We didn't want to push water so we had to back out of the main pack to get some air on the front end. That wasn't a lot of fun. But we caught a lucky break on a late caution and, fortunately, that helped us a lot."

Paul Menard, No. 27 Turtle Wax/ Menards Chevrolet

Start: 17th
Finish: 17th
Points Start: 14th
Points Finish: 14th 

Leading three times for a total of 10 laps, Paul Menard's No. 27 showed it could run up front. As many drivers did, Menard opted to drop back to try to cool the engine. “Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) and the guys gave me a great car this weekend. We raced in the back for the majority of the laps and stayed out of trouble," Menard said. "The Turtle Wax/Menard Chevrolet was fast and I was able to drive through the field, and we missed the ‘Big One’ that happened just as we were coming off of pit road from a green-flag stop. Usually you’re safe up front, but at these restrictor-plate tracks, you never know what is going to happen next." 

With nine to go the No. 27 was was poised to try to win the race, but as his PR person tweeted, "@RCR27PMenard Restarting lap 184 in p3. Welll....that stinks! Coming to pit road for repairs" Menard explained, "During the restart (on lap 185), we got nailed on the right side when the No. 22 car turned right into us. The team did a great job making repairs in the pits and we managed to salvage a decent finish. It was frustrating for all of us because we had a top-five car that could have contended for the win.”

Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Rheem Chevrolet 

Start: 20th
Finish: 25th
Points Start: 7th
Points Finish: 5th

Kevin Harvick was among the drivers with fuel issues. Wife DeLana tweeted during the race "@CupCrewChief told @KevinHarvick we ran out on lap 37 showed we could go to 43....,  meaning 37 laps into the run rather than 43 - it was Lap 144, actually, but as the No. 29 pitted, chaos erupted in Turns 3 and 4, putting Harvick a lap down. For the next laps he worked to stay ahead of the lap-down cars to get the lucky dog, the free pass to put him back on the lead lap. 

Sure enough, the caution flew on Lap 177, and as DeLana put it, "Yes!!!! We were the dog as the 31 was able to stay in front of the leaders before the caution came out." After the restart, Harvick managed to hook up with friend and familiar drafting partner Tony Stewart, powering to 11th position, only to have another caution fly when the No. 51 spun in front of Harvick. On the first attempt at the green-white-checkered restart, there was no way to avoid the multi-car wreck that inflicted heavy damage on the Rheem Chevy. 

Harvick said, "Today was another one of those racing deals, I guess two guys got crossed up there on the restart and just blocked the track." Adding to the criticism of the cooling package, he said, "Talladega is fun racing to watch and I enjoy it, but NASCAR has got us in a terrible box here as far as temperatures and things like that. You run around in a pack at 260 (degrees) and the engines just can't survive those conditions. I love this style racing, just wish we could have secured a better finish for the Rheem Chevrolet team today."

So it's on to Darlington with hopes of better finishes for the RCR teams. Hopefully the Lady in Black will be more merciful.


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