Richard Childress Racing is currently in its longest winless streak in team history. The current drought sits at 73 races, going back to when Kevin Harvick was victorious at Phoenix in Nov. 2013.
There is optimism within the camp heading into the new season.
Ryan Newman and Paul Menard both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, but had early exits within the first two rounds. It was the Menard’s first time competing for a championship after joining RCR in 2011.
In 2014, Newman made it to the championship race at Homestead, still having a legitimate shot at the championship. Unfortunately for the No. 31 crew they came up one-point short of beating Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team for the championship. The Indiana native set his personal best finish of second in the championship standings in his first year with RCR.
Last season, Newman began the season with a lot of raw speed. In the first five races, he posted four top-10 finishes, including three top-fives, with a best finish of third at Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Following the ninth race of the season, momentum began to swing in the wrong direction. Crew chief Luke Lambert was suspended following the race at Auto Club Speedway, but appealed. The final decision didn’t come until after Richmond, in which he was suspended for six races, moving veteran crew chief Todd Parrott atop the pit box after he was named the XFINITY Series Competition Director at RCR during the 2014 off-season.
In the first three races, the duo clicked off three-consecutive top-10 finishes, but then fell off the map with finishes of 18th, 39th and 18th respectively. Lambert came back at Daytona in which the team recorded an eighth-place finish.
It was a tale of two halves of the season for the No. 31 car.
In the first 18 races, the team posted 10 of its 15 top-10 finishes. In the second half of the season, the team fell off the map, but made it to the second round of the Chase when Newman was eliminated after Talladega in a controversial finish.
“We’ve got to win,” Newman told Speedway Digest. “That’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to win for the Chase, but you’ve got to win for momentum on your team, your organization, everybody involved. We saw last year because of our alliance with the No. 78 car how big that momentum really is when you do get that victory.”
In order to win a race, Newman will need to spend more time at the front of the field. He is coming off a season in which he led just 20 laps, and in two seasons with RCR, he had led a mire 61 laps. He has been consistent, but in order to put the Caterpillar Chevrolet in Victory Lane, the team needs to lead more laps and contend for top-five finishes on a regular basis.
“After finishing second two years ago, we really expected it (win) to happen last year and it didn’t,” Newman said. “We were close several times, but we didn’t lead enough laps to put our self in position to do that. That’s really what we need to work on is just putting our self in a better position to win and that’s leading laps and the guys in the pits did a good job of stepping up.”
Newman hasn’t won a race since he won the Brickyard 400 in 2013 when he beat Jimmie Johnson. That was when he was with Stewart-Haas Racing, but the move to RCR has had its positives and negatives.
“Everybody on the team has to do a perfect job and then you might still get beat by ability by some other team,” Newman said. “There are so many variables in our sport that you have to have everything right on a given day to put yourself in contention and you still might get beat.”
Menard, on the other hand, is coming off what would seem to be a career year. That is not the case.
The No. 27 car finished inside of the top 10 just five times in 2015, down from a career-high 13 in 2014. Two of those top-10 finishes were top fives, but he led just 10 laps on the season, the lowest amount he’s led in a single season since 2009, when he was a part of Yates Racing.
His best finish of 2015 in May at Talladega, where he finished third and had a shot at the victory until the tri-oval, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was victorious blocking from the bottom of the track all the way to the top.
One positive for the organization was that Menard completed 98.7 percent of the laps on the season, with an average finish of 17.1. Though he didn’t record the top 10s necessary to be competitive in the Chase, he is coming off his highest finish in the championship standings of 14th, beating Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth in the 10-race battle.
Menard’s goals are set for this season. He wants to be better than last season, but also make the Chase for the second-consecutive year.
“Our plan is to be in the Chase again and advance further,” Menard said. “When the Chase started last year we were not at our best, we were probably at our worst all year. We got eliminated in the first round.
“Justin is in his second year as being crew chief. He’s got more experience under his belt. We basically have the same team together as last year.”
The team is nearly the same except for an engineer change during the off-season. The same pit crew that pitted Menard’s car in the Chase will be back on the team after shuffling over to his car midseason.
One thing that has eluded Menard from his Cup career is a victory outside of the 2011 Brickyard 400.
It is strange that as to why Menard made the Chase last season, as it could be argued that it was his worst seasons in his tenure at RCR. There is reason to optimism for the team as he seems to always get off to hot starts then collapses in the summer. He doesn’t think that will happen in 2016.
“I feel like it can be any given week,” Menard said. “Especially toward the end of last year we hit on some things that I felt really good about. I feel like we can roll into Daytona with as good of a shot as anybody. When we get to Atlanta which is the low-downforce and the first true test of the season everybody has a clean slate.”
The other driver that yet been mentioned is Austin Dillon. Though he was the lone RCR driver to not make the Chase last season, he led the most laps out of all three teams and seemed to have the most speed throughout the second half of the season.
RCR will look to come out guns blazing in 2016 starting at the Daytona 500. Newman is a former Daytona 500 winner, while Menard and Dillon typically run well on restrictor plate tracks. It would make the season a lot easier for the organization if one of the three drivers wins the Great American Race.