This is part three in the series, looking at how Cup teams fared in 2008, and where they are headed in 2009. Each post will feature two teams and we will iron out details for the upcoming season and give our own projection for what to expect in ‘09.
Richard Childress Racing
After a very strong 2007 campaign that saw all the RCR cars in the Chase but fall short of the championship, the three teams were looking to again reach the Chase in 2008 and contend for the title.
Kevin Harvick came into this year looking to improve on a strong 2007 season and be a title contender. But even though he was the highest finishing RCR driver in the Chase (fourth), Harvick never really got going in ’08. He was winless for the first time since the 2004 season.
Since joining Childress part way through the 2004 season, Jeff Burton’s career has been resurrected. Including 2008, Burton has now made the Chase three straight seasons. After it appeared he may be a strong title contender following his win at the fall Charlotte race, Burton faded late and finished sixth in the Chase.
Coming off a sophomore season that saw Clint Bowyer finish 3rd in the Chase, I believe many thought 2008 would be a great year for the driver from Kansas. But Bowyer’s stats show ’08 was very similar to ’07. He did finish fifth in the final standings, but was never really a contender.
Heading into 2009, RCR as an organization will undergo several major changes, and could be stronger then ever.
Because of Sprint’s contract with NASCAR, AT&T could not go on as sponsor of Jeff Burton’s #31 past 2008. But it was announced part way through the season that Caterpillar would move from Bill Davis Racing to take over as the primary sponsor for the team. Beyond that, there are no other significant changes coming to this team. I would expect more of the same from Burton and Co. in 2009. He will win one to three races and make the Chase, but real title contention will be out of reach.
Starting next season, RCR will finally make the jump to four full time Cup teams. The fourth car will be #33 and has full backing from Betty Crocker and BB&T. Clint Bowyer will jump from the #07 to this car and will be joined by veteran crew chief Shane Wilson. Wilson has been with RCR since ’06 and has a Busch Series Championship on his resume. With Wilson’s knowledge and Bowyer’s talent, I would not be surprised to see Bowyer have a very good 2009. I think three to five wins isn’t out of the question, and this team may challenge Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson for the ’09 title.
With Bowyer vacating the #07, Childress signed Casey Mears to replace him, who himself was displaced at Hendrick Motorsports by Mark Martin. Mears will have Jack Daniels on the hood and will be paired with crew chief Gil Martin. I don’t expect much out of this team next year, as Mears is an average driver at best. A top 20 points finish would be the most we could hope for this team in ’09.
Kevin Harvick’s #29 team is the only group at RCR that will remain relatively unchanged for next season with Shell/Pennzoil returning along with crew chief Todd Berrier. Harvick hasn’t won since the 2007 Daytona 500, and it appeared he hadn’t quite figured out how to put the COT in victory lane. But he was better in the second half of ’08 and I believe this team will be back next season. Look for a couple of wins, a fourth straight Chase appearance, and an outside shot at the title.
Even though both Haas CNC Racing cars began 2008 in the top 35 in owners points, only one would finish that way. Scott Riggs had a forgettable season in the #66, missing two races and finishing 31st in the final standings. The other Haas car, the #70, finished 43rd in the standings after it missed five races and was shared by six different drivers.
With the team’s owner, Gene Haas, starting a two year prison term for tax evasion in January, those in control knew something had to be done to save this team from utter collapse. After being one of the worst kept secrets of 2008, it was finally announced in July that Haas would give 50% of the team to Cup Champion Tony Stewart. They knew his talent, ownership experience, and name would bring prominence and the all important sponsorship dollars to the fading organization.
Starting in 2009, Haas CNC Racing will become Stewart-Haas Racing. Along with that, the #70 will become the #14, and the #66 will become the #39. Tony Stewart will drive the #14 with sponsorship from Office Depot and Old Spice. The team will be led by former Hendrick crew chief and engineer Darian Grubb. The #39 will be driven by the former Penske driver Ryan Newman, and taking over as crew chief will be former DEI employee, Tony Gibson. As of this post, Newman’s team only has a partial sponsor in the U.S. Army, and needs funding for about 15 more races.
Besides the moves made for driver and crew chiefs, Tony Stewart also brought in veteran motorsports boss Bobby Hutchens to be the company’s General Manager.
The outlook for 2009 for this organization could really go either way. Haas hasn’t exactly been a powerhouse team in the past, and it may be tough for Stewart and his management team to turn that around. But a big boost for this team will be the support of Hendrick Motorsports. Haas had been getting help from HMS before this deal, but expect that flow of equipment and information to intensify, as this gives Rick Hendrick two more championship caliber drivers to work with. I’m going to predict top 20 points finishes for both cars, with maybe a win or two between them. But I think the Chase, and ultimately title contention, are still a few years away for SHR.