Few Sprint Cup teams come into the 2014 season with as many question marks than Richard Childress Racing.
Both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton have moved on to new addresses—Harvick to Stewart-Haas Racing and Burton to a part-time role at Michael Waltrip Racing.
In their place are rookie (and grandson of team owner, Richard Childress) Austin Dillon and veteran Ryan Newman.
Newman is a proven commodity, coming off a season where he was the lone representative for Stewart-Haas Racing, coupled with a long career that began with a lengthy tenure at Penske Racing.
Dillon is hoping to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win championships in all three major series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks.
He's already earned titles in the latter two (2013 and 2011, respectively), joining Greg Biffle as the only two-series champ.
But even more important is that Dillon will drive and bring back the legendary No. 3 to the Cup ranks for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was killed in that same numbered car on the final lap of the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500.
Dillon's version of the No. 3 will be significantly changed from Earnhardt's, with a different font for the number, a new sponsor and an individual paint scheme. He will not be "The Intimidator" or the "Man In Black," as Earnhardt was.
Then there's the third piece of the RCR puzzle—veteran, Paul Menard.
The Wisconsin native is coming off a mediocre campaign in 2013 and, given that Harvick and Burton have moved on, could potentially move on himself—and not necessarily by choice—if his performance doesn't significantly improve in 2014.
This season is unquestionably the single most important season at RCR since 2001, when Earnhardt was killed and replaced by Harvick. So many questions followed Earnhardt's passing, including whether RCR would continue, let alone survive for the long term.
Indeed, it has. But while 2014 isn't necessarily a make-or-break season for the racing juggernaut from Welcome, N.C., it definitely is a season where RCR and its three drivers must prove a lot to skeptics and critics who are still upset Harvick and Burton moved on.
At the same time, RCR could potentially be the darkest of dark horses in the 2014 Cup season. Let's count some of the reasons:
1. Ryan Newman
Newman has a great deal to prove after the way he was unceremoniously released by SHR, being told enough sponsorship could not be found to allow him to continue on with the organization in 2014.
Of course, just a few weeks later, right after Newman won the Brickyard 400 in his native Indiana, team owner Gene Haas dipped into his significantly deep pockets to sign Kurt Busch.
Much like Darian Grubb was kicked to the curb at SHR after leading Tony Stewart to his third Cup title in 2011, Newman deserved better, as well. That's why he is likely to go for the jugular right from the green flag and is a strong candidate to win his second Daytona 500 next month.
2. Austin Dillon
Dillon will have the attention of the entire NASCAR world upon him, particularly at Daytona. It's very likely fans will do some type of celebratory display to welcome the No. 3 back, like holding up three fingers on Lap 3, which occurred in almost every race of the 2001 season to honor the memory of the late, great "Intimidator."
The question is whether Dillon can live up to the scrutiny and expectations.
Sure, having Pop Pop (Dillon's nickname for Childress) as his grandfather is a definite asset, but all the media attention, and reveling in the fact the No. 3 is back in the Cup ranks, will soon fade away. It will be solely upon the shoulders of Dillon and his crew to prove he deserves to not only be in the Cup series, but also deserves to drive such a legendary car number.
Could Dillon become this year's Trevor Bayne and put the No. 3 in Victory Lane at Daytona? While it's a long shot, it's not out of the realm of possibility, either.
3. Paul Menard
Menard won the Brickyard 400 a few years back, which is not only the highlight of his career, but essentially, is really the only thing to crow about of said same career.
While his father John, and sponsorship from the family's Menard's home improvement centers, essentially guarantees Paul a ride for life in NASCAR, if he doesn't pick up the pace and his performance, he could be looking for a new home in 2015.
Even with dad's money, Menard has to prove he belongs with the new-look RCR. And if he fails to do so in 2014, there's another Dillon—Austin's younger brother Ty—waiting in the wings to potentially move up to the Cup ranks in 2015.
Do the Math
If RCR is to remain a three-car team, and both Newman and Austin Dillon are just entering the first of respective multi-year deals, it behooves Menard to drive like he has never driven before. Otherwise, it could be exit Paul and enter Ty a year from now.
Bottom line, RCR got a little too predictable over the last few years with its lineup of Harvick, Burton and Menard. Now that two-thirds of that lineup has been shaken up and it's a new-look RCR in 2014, Childress is not going to settle for anything less than performance and success.
With the significance of what Newman and Dillon face, plus Menard needing to perform well to keep the footsteps behind him from getting closer and louder, the solution is simple.
The new-look RCR has a lot to do, but if it is up for the task, it very likely is going to surprise a lot of people in 2014.
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