Optimism high for RCR crew

CONCORD, N.C. -- The start of the 2009 Sprint Cup season was just over a month away, and Jeff Burton had a nervous, uneasy feeling.

"We went for a tire test at Texas and we were pretty far off," said the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet as he recalled last season's January Goodyear session. "I knew right there we were in trouble."

Not just his team, but all of Richard Childress Racing.

And he was right.

RCR -- which put at least two drivers into the Chase in each of the previous three seasons and three in the past two -- didn't finish with a driver ranked better than 15th in points. The organization also went winless for the first time since 2004 and led only 320 laps after expanding to four teams.

But the anxiety Burton felt a year ago is gone. He believes the changes RCR made -- personnel to overall philosophy -- from midsummer on have turned things around. He's optimistic that the organization can compete not only for spots in the Chase, but for the championship.

"I am extremely optimistic," Burton said. "There's a lot of good teams. Everybody believes they've made their programs better. I know we've made our program better. I don't believe it. I know it.

"I believe we are in position to be a real threat. I really do."

Burton's optimism is shared throughout RCR, which returned to a three-car operation after failing to secure sponsorship for Casey Mears in the No. 07. Numbers posted at the end of last season explain why.

"With five races to go, you were seeing RCR cars running up front as a whole," Clint Bowyer said. "It wasn't just one. It was all of them running good. That gives me a lot of optimism going into the season and thinking that we've got something for them this year."

Bowyer was 12th or better in six of the final seven races. Burton finished with six straight races inside the top 15 and four inside the top 10, including second in the final two. Kevin Harvick had two top-5s in the final three events and four top-10s in the final seven.

"Every time I've been in the car for the last three months my car has driven really, really well," Burton said. "The work we've been able to do has been very, very productive. I have had more confidence sitting in these race cars and them driving well on the first lap on the track, and that's allowed us to go do some experimenting.

"When you are struggling you are playing pin the tail on the donkey and hoping you hit it. When you are running well now you can test."

Most of the changes revolved around crew chiefs and crew members. Todd Berrier, for example, started the season with Harvick, moved to Mears and then to Burton where he is now.

"The whole company feels good coming off the season," owner Richard Childress said. "None of us wanted to end the season with the momentum we had going. That's the way it is when you get things going. It's equal for everybody starting over."

Eliminating the No. 07, which was supposed to strengthen the organization, also helped. Childress was able to take the cream of the crop and reshuffle into three stronger teams.

"Not having a fourth team is not a negative impact," Burton said. "We had changed so many things that having to implement those three times is a lot easier than having to implement them four times."

For a while it appeared RCR might lose two drivers as Harvick reportedly asked out of the final year of his contract this season. Childress wouldn't let his star driver go, and the two reached a common ground that they hope will allow the No. 29 car to compete at a high level regardless of what happens after this season.

Harvick is noncommittal about his future, but he is committed to this season.

"Hopefully we've got a good foundation to start the year," he said. "Even when we've had our bad years before, we could still finish 10th, 15th … and that's the piece we were missing last year.

"Our bad days, they were bad. Our good days were good at the end of the year, but those middle-of-the-road finishes are what we have to have. Hopefully, we can find that consistency this year."

Burton all but guarantees it.

"I feel like we're so much more prepared going into this year compared to where we were last year," he said. "A lot of things have happened at RCR that I feel really good about."

Those are words he couldn't say a year ago.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.