AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Maybe you haven't noticed, but Richard Childress Racing is improving. And Sunday's race could gauge just how far RCR has come.
Everyone at RCR is disappointed about the organization's lackluster results in 2009, no victories this season and failing to place a driver in the Chase for the first time.
But things are looking up. The Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend was the first time in more than a year that RCR had three drivers finish in the top 10 on the same day.
AP Photo/Bob JordanRichard Childress has been scrambling to put his Sprint Cup teams on more competitive footing.
Fuel strategy played a part in how things sorted out at the end, but the Childress boys ran well all day.
Kevin Harvick's fifth-place showing was his best finish in the last two months. Clint Bowyer was seventh, his fourth top-10 in the eight Chase races. And Jeff Burton finished ninth in his backup car after wrecking the primary car in practice two days earlier.
"What a heck of a run by our team," Burton said after the race. "These guys fought hard after we had to load up our primary No. 31 Chevy. Todd [Berrier, crew chief] did a great job dialing in our backup for the race."
The TMS event was the first time RCR had three top-10s in a race since the Dover fall event last year. The cars are more competitive and the guys on the pit box are making smart decisions at key moments.
"Our car was tight all day," Bowyer said after the TMS race. "But Shane [Wilson, crew chief] made a call to short pit for fuel in order to make it to the end. The cards fell in our favor and it was another good result."
The four RCR drivers, including Casey Mears, have posted 11 top-10s in the eight Chase races. At least one RCR driver has finished in the top 10 in each of the last five races.
But this weekend is a big test. RCR was awful at Phoenix in April. Burton was the only RCR drivers to finish on the lead lap, and he was 15th. Mears ended up 20th, Bowyer was 26th and Harvick was 30th.
"Yeah, that's when we knew we needed to start doing some work on our cars," Harvick said earlier this week. "What made it really evident was that we actually ran 30th.
"It wasn't like something happened to put us back there, like contact with another car or brushing the wall. Then I could see us running back there."
It was only the eighth race of the season, but Harvick and everyone else at RCR knew they had serious problems, and those problems weren't solvable overnight.
A week later, Childress announced that Harvick and Mears were swapping crews. It was the first of many changes that have transpired this season for the RCR teams.
Harvick says he's leaving after his contract expires next year. RCR may go back to three cars next season because Jack Daniel's is leaving as the sponsor of the No. 07 Chevy, so Mears probably is out of a ride.
But the last few weeks have been encouraging for the RCR folks. The results have improved dramatically and all signs point to a possible resurgence in 2010.