RCR Rejuvenated?

Tyler Reddick & Denny Hamlin

There is an unmistakable vibe permeating the legendary Richard Childress Racing team. From management to crew to driver, the upswing in performance for the organization is palpable.

As the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), optimism and expectation are at high levels and with good reason.

Twelve races into the NASCAR Cup Series season, both RCR team drivers, Austin Dillon and rookie Tyler Reddick have earned top-five finishes. Dillon has four top 10s and Reddick has three. Last week, for the first time, they both finished among the top 10 in the same race with Reddick scoring a career-best fourth place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet and his teammate Dillon finishing seventh in the No. 3 RCR Chevy.

Those numbers are especially significant in comparison to recent seasons. In 2019, Dillon had six top 10s over the 36-race schedule and not a single top-five run. The seven combined top-10 finishes in the bag already for RCR — only a third of the way through the schedule — nearly equal last year’s entire season total for the two-car Chevrolet team (eight).

“I’m really optimistic about where we are and where we’re going,” said Richard Childress Racing’s Vice President of Competition Andy Petree.

“I think we’ve got a lot of areas where we’re improving on and I see a lot of promise. Both teams are better this year than we were last year. And what I’m seeing is they battle through a lot of adversity when the car maybe isn’t as good and they’re able to get it right and get a good finish out of it.”

Petree believes the team’s new combination of drivers has been a legitimate uptick for the organization — as important as a new Chevrolet body that has raised the competition level as well. Dillon, 30, the 2017 Daytona 500 winner, is in his seventh full-time NASCAR Cup Series season and has quietly assumed a more experienced, leadership role. And Reddick, 24, who won his second consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series championship last year in an RCR Chevy, has been a quick study in his step-up to NASCAR’s version of primetime.

Although the two drivers hail from opposite sides of the country — Dillon from North Carolina and Reddick from Northern California — the pair have a lot in common and genuinely get along well. They have known each other for years — competing together in late models as they made their way up through the stock-car ranks. And now they are both new fathers.

Dillon’s wife, Whitney, gave birth to the couple’s first child, son Ace, last weekend. Reddick is a new dad as well, famously declaring his son’s name would be “Beau” as he celebrated his race win and Xfinity title last November at Homestead. His wife, Alexa, had promised him he could pick the baby’s name if he won the championship. Beau was born in December.

“Even outside the race car we get along great,” Reddick said of his teammate. “We know each other back from when he and his brother raced dirt late models and I raced dirt late models at some of the same tracks.

“I’ve been texting him asking him how he’s doing as a new dad. I remember very well because it wasn’t that long ago, and the first week or two you don’t know what’s happening, you’re just like, ‘what the heck is going on?’ ”

Dillon talked fondly about the life changes and was smiling widely as he spoke to the national media this week, “I’m tired, but it’s been an amazing experience. He’s an amazing little guy. … Pumped to have him in this world.”

As for the team, Dillon was adamant that this season has been a game-changer. And he’s convinced that multiple victories are very reasonable expectations for an organization that has only scored wins by multiple drivers one time (2017, Dillon and Ryan Newman) in the last decade.

“It’s been an awesome year so far,” Dillon said. “Always want more, but compared to years past I’m very optimistic about where we are, especially from last year to this year. Big jumps and those jumps are hard to come by.

“Tyler coming in with an Xfinity Series championship brought some momentum and I think fired up everybody. It fired up myself. He’s a good wheelman and builds both teams to kind of compete within and that comes with these good finishes that we’re having.

“The competition is great at RCR and that’s a big part of it. And Chevrolet stepped up its game in the offseason and really gave us something else to work with as far as the car goes.”

The compatibility between Dillon and Reddick is considered a real competition boost. They push each other hard on-track and are real support systems away from the track. Both bring different skillsets to the team.

And both are flourishing.

“Tyler is probably one of the most mentally strong drivers that I have ever worked with,” said Petree, who served as the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief for three seasons at RCR, guiding him to the 1993 and 1994 Cup titles.

“Some drivers are hung up on things if they feel like one little detail is not right or somebody else has a better this or that,” Petree continued. “They get into this mental state that they feel they are beat, that another team is better. Tyler never lets those kind of thoughts enter his mind. He assumes his car is car is as good as the other guys. And it’s not always, we’re always working on it.

“He just goes at it with the attitude that ‘I’ve got as good a car as Kyle Busch’ or whoever and ‘I want to go race them.’

“Once we put Tyler in the 8 car, he’s just got that energy that comes with that,” Petree added. “Won the championship last year in Xfinity, won six races for us. That was really our bright spot at RCR last year. He brought all that energy to the Cup side, and I think that’s helped fuel a lot of this, too.”

Dillon’s statistics are encouraging as well. Although he earned big wins in 2017 at Daytona and 2018 at Charlotte, his season-long numbers lagged. He had only three top-five and four top-10 efforts in all of 2017. He had only two top-five and eight top-10 showings in all of 2018. And last year, he had zero top-five finishes and only six top-10 finishes.

This year he was fourth at Las Vegas and posted top 10s at Charlotte, Bristol and Homestead.

“Austin’s got so much experience now,” Petree said. “He’s in that phase in his career where he should really be rising to the top, in his prime. That’s paying off for us. You’ve got your young guy in Tyler putting all this energy into it. And I think it helps Austin to feel better about his stuff to see that car run good, too.”

Dillon and Reddick are ranked 16th and 17th, respectively, in the championship standings heading to Talladega. They trail 10th-place Kurt Busch by only 57 and 59 points. And Reddick leads a highly competitive Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition.

“I really felt like going into this year, it would be like this,” Petree said of the team’s success. “I was expecting it. Now actually doing it is another thing. Knowing we could be even better and have chances to win, it’s culminating in what I tried to achieve in coming here. It took longer than I wanted it to but we’re starting to really see the fruits of the things we’ve done. Good times right now.

“These opportunities don’t come along often. You’ve really got to seize them when they’re here. It’s great opportunity but it’s also great responsibility. Everyone feels the optimism but also the pressure to perform and step up. And they’re doing it.”

TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!

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