Richard's boys keep rolling
BROOKLYN, Mich. (June
Dale Earnhardt, right, and crew
chief Kevin Hamlin, left, have worked well together since car owner Richard Childress made
some personnel moves two years ago.
Two years ago, Richard Childress had a driver who was on his way out, and one who didn't
seem to be on his way anywhere.
Dale Earnhardt had won the Daytona 500, but was
stumbling once again and looked like a man who was getting lapped by the sport. Mike
Skinner had struggled, too, on Childress' second team, and his success in the NASCAR
Craftsman Truck Series was losing most of its luster.
Then, manager Childress brought out the hook, and threw the
garage area a curve. He took his veteran crew chief, Larry McReynolds, and paired him with
his younger driver, Skinner. He also took his younger crew chief, Kevin Hamlin, and
assigned him the task of getting Earnhardt back on track.
Many wondered if such a move was merely a Band-aid instead of
a cure. But lo and behold, something wonderful happened. Earnhardt started winning again.
And Skinner became a contender to win almost every week.
Earnhardt won three times in 1999, and once more this year
(Atlanta) for good measure. Skinner won in Japan for a second time, and this year has been
a victory waiting to happen. Earnhardt is third in the standings, with more top-10
finishes (10) than anyone else in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Skinner, who finished
second at Talladega, is 13th, looking for his second consecutive top-10 finish in the
"Michigan will mark the second year together for Dale
Earnhardt and Kevin Hamlin," Childress said. "I think they've turned into a
pretty good combination. We've been working hard and putting everything together that we
need to win that eighth championship. I think if the rules stay the same and we don't
shoot ourselves in the foot, we've got a good chance to contend for the title this year.
"Bobby Labonte and Ward Burton have been very consistent
so far, and it's too early to count anybody out yet. I'd say anybody within 500 points of
the lead right now has a chance to win. We came into Charlotte one year more than 200
points out of the lead and we won it. It's too early to say who you've got to beat. Jeff
Gordon and his team will get things worked out and they'll be tough. He's always good at
Michigan, and that's what we're really concentrating on right now, the next race."
Last year in this race, Earnhardt finished 16th and Skinner
18th. In the fall, Earnhardt was fifth and Skinner 36th. Childress looks for better
numbers this year.
"I think we're going to have two good cars at
Michigan," he said. "We're working on some new stuff for the second half of the
season, and hopefully, we're going to keep getting better. Kevin and Dale have turned into
a great combination. Kevin is a laid-back crew chief, and that's what Dale is used to.
When Kevin worked with Mike, I could see some of the things in Kevin that Dale needed.
Larry McReynolds had many qualities that Mike Skinner needed, so it's worked out well for
Indeed it has. Chemistry is such a delicate thing. An
experiment like the one Childress tried could just as easily have blown up in his face.
Instead, it has helped the team face their problems and move forward.
"Kevin has done an excellent job," Childress said.
"He's a laid back kind of guy like Kirk Shelmerdine used to be with Dale. Kevin has a
simple approach to racing, and that's what Earnhardt has been accustomed to over the
years. Those two just clicked from the first race. I'm right there on the pit box with
Kevin during the races. We talk pit strategy back and forth, and we have a real good
working relationship. Bobby Hutchens is the general manager and he floats between the 3
and 31 and stays wherever he's needed the most."
Earnhardt's legions of fans will tell you the Intimidator
needs that eighth championship to break the current tie with Richard Petty for most ever
in the series. Childress thinks that could be delivered this season.
"The 3 team is just 98 points behind (leader Labonte)
right now, but you're never satisfied when you're behind," he said. "If we were
98 points ahead, we wouldn't be satisfied. You're never satisfied until it's all over and
you've won it. We lost a lot of points at Bristol (39th-place finish). A lot of teams have
lost a lot at different tracks this season."
Skinner hasn't lost much lately. He was 33rd at Richmond, but
that was his only finish outside the top-10 in the last four races.
"The 31 team's time is coming soon," Childress
said. "They've led a lot of races and should have won a couple of races this year.
They just can't put the day together all the way. They've had some poor luck.
"We talk about it every week in our staff meetings. If
Kevin or Larry have an idea or suggestion, then we discuss it. I'll tell them what I'd
like to see happen. We know we have some weak areas that we need to work on. Every team
has weak areas that need fixing. I think we need to be better on the flat tracks."
But they are not coming up flat in the standings. Childress
is ever the planner, and another championship is part of the plan.
"In 1995, we put together a projection for RCR in the
year 2000," he said. "Right now, we're putting together a projection for 2005.
It's almost scary how many things we accomplished that we wanted to accomplish for the
year 2000. We wanted to be successful with multi-car teams. We wanted to explore other
divisions, get our CMC Department and R&D Department and Engineering Department up and
running with several engineers.
"We also wanted to contend for the championship in 2000,
and we're doing that, too. We're not running around like a bunch of has-beens. We're
competitive and we're trying to win races and championships. We've set some other goals,
too, and a lot of them I can't talk about. We're always looking when options come up. Some
people have speculated about a three-car Winston Cup team. I'm not saying it may not be in
the cards down the road, but I don't see it this year or next year. We're researching the
magic number for teams. Is it five or four or three or just two? We don't know."
There are two teams now, but there is a kissin' cousin
relationship with the teams owned by Earnhardt, as one might suspect.
"We work with Dale's teams, too," Childress said.
"Our RAD program is working good. If we have a mechanical problem at the track or if
one of Dale's teams have a problem, then we help each other. The crew chiefs work well
together, too. Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. has really provided a spark this season, but I think
his father had the fire burning before Junior came along. Dale's healthy now, and that's a
big key. I know he was hurting last year. He's a new person physically. He used to have a
problem getting out of the car after the race. He could get out now and run to the top of
the grandstands if he needed to.
"I think Junior has helped him, but not for the reason
some people might think. They're having fun now because they're spending more time
together. That father-son relationship is getting stronger. I think Junior is going to be
a superstar in the sport. He has a great personality, and he's super good with the fans.
He's got what it takes."
Kind of like a certain seven-time champion Childress hooked
up with back in the mid-1980s.
"I guess Dale was 29 or 30 when I first met him, and
we've been together now for 16 years," Childress said. "I guess that's sort of a
milestone in motorsports. We're still there fighting for a championship, and with a little
luck we'll get there again."
By making that move two years ago, perhaps Childress made his
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
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