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Old 04-27-2006, 12:09 AM   #1
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Default Charting the Chase

It's very easy to get behind in our sport. The competition creeps up on you before you even know it. That's the problem in NASCAR.

That's what happened to Richard Childress Racing as the organizations chasing his teams continued to get better. In 2004, one of the highest-profile teams in the sport ? the No. 29 which is basically the old No. 3 car ? went winless. Childress finally looked up and said, "I've got to fix this deal. I can do anything that Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs can do."

Thousandths of a second separate teams in qualifying every week so the competition is very close. It's not like you're down 100 horsepower or 300 pounds of downforce. The top 15 to 25 teams have the same resources, and NASCAR's rule box keeps aero, chassis and horsepower pretty close. At the end of the day, little bits and pieces can make the difference. You need the right people to make sure those bits and pieces are put together the right way.

RCR's turnaround didn't just happen over the winter. It started coming to fruition last year when he made a new commitment to his aero and chassis programs. About halfway through last year, he hired Nick Hayes from Cosworth. Hayes didn't wave a magic wand in their engine shop. They had good, reliable engines, but you get tunnelvision in our sport. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to open your eyes and help you take a step back at the bigger picture. That's what Hayes has done.

Should he stay or go?
Kevin Harvick is a racer. I would tend to believe that he is going to do whatever he has to do to drive a competitive racecar. In the perfect world, it would be for Richard Childress Racing. I'm sure Harvick will keep his options open, but if he knows in his heart that he'll be competitive for years to come at RCR, I can't imagine that he would leave.

Now Harvick is also a businessman who owns Kevin Harvick Inc. He's building for the future, which will weigh into his decision. That's especially true if Toyota does a major program with Kevin Harvick Inc. Toyota needs to do something. Their lineup is very weak. They need a Kevin Harvick Inc. or a Kevin Harvick. Nothing against Michael Waltrip, but he just ran his 650th career race, and he's four for 650.

Before Bristol, Harvick and Childress announced that they would sit down and evaluate their future together by the Charlotte races in May. Since then, the No. 29 team has had four consecutive top-10 finishes and gone from from 23rd to 8th in points. I don't know if it's a case of once the pressure is off or once the pressure is on, but what a difference that announcement has made in their peformance.

Roush Racing
Poor Greg Biffle's saga continues. Once again, he had a car that looked like he was going to win. After leading the first 47 laps, we pointed out how he's dominated races this season without winning. For the third time this season, he led the most laps but finished outside the top 10. Crew chief Doug Richert is probably beating himself up for running out of fuel, and the fans are probably beating him up, too. But everyone one of those crew chiefs did what they had to do on pit road.

It's easy to say they made a bad call by not pitting, but they were going for the win. Two or three laps at a one-mile racetrack isn't a huge gamble because your driver normally can buy you enough fuel. Predominantly Roush cars ? Biffle, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin ? but also Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Petty ran out of fuel at the end. Biffle finished 16th. If he had made a pit stop for fuel under green, he probably still would have finished somewhere in that neighborhood.

Your fuel window is 75 to 85 laps. The final caution came out with 88 laps to go. If the driver can conserve a little fuel, he can make it to the end. Carl Edwards did what he had to do to get the finish the No. 99 team needed. They've had some decent runs, but they finally got their third top-five finish of the season.

Danger zone
Several drivers are flirting with disaster right now. As Waltrip said at Phoenix, his team ran terribly at Daytona during single-lap runs so whether he makes the show or not will be a big story during qualifying on Saturday at Talladega (Noon ET on SPEED). The No. 55 is a very high-profile team that worked the system hard at the beginning of the year and spent a lot of money to make sure that they made the first five races. Eight races into the season, they're in the same boat again.

Another team that's on the verge of being in big trouble right now is Jeremy Mayfield and the No. 19 car. They were out of the top 35 last week, but after making the show, they climbed back into the top 35 so they're locked into the race at Talladega. When Dave Blaney hit the wall, they repaired the car and stayed on the lead lap. We followed his march back up through the field, and he stayed in the top 35. That's the good thing about watching the top 35 in owner points. You can be out one week and in the next week
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