NASCAR's Richard Childress Holds the Winning Hand for the Brickyard 400

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NASCAR's Richard Childress Holds the Winning Hand for the Brickyard 400
Will Schneekloth/Getty Images
Austin Dillon (l) with Richard Childress

Can you picture it? Veteran NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, walking around the Sprint Cup garage humming the melody to Bob Seger’s classic “RamblinGamblin’ Man”?

Certainly, he knows the song and there may have been a moment when he sang along to it at one point in his life—probably as it was being played on a jukebox, in some juke joint somewhere back when.

Childress is the character that Seger is singing about in the song—a song about gambling and spinning the wheel of fortune, throwing the dice and not being shy.

Childress may know a thing or two about gambling, especially when it concerns the future. He’s thrown the dice a few times.

When he climbed out from behind the wheel of his race car, instead of driving it, he gambled that owning the car and having someone else drive it could work better. He placed his bet on a brash but very talented driver from Kannapolis, N.C., named Dale Earnhardt. Together they spun the wheel of fortune and it came up a winner six times. Along the way, the two men became best friends.

Years later, when his best friend left this world, Childress nearly quit the racing business. But instead, he gambled again. This time on another brash and talented driver who happened to come from the other side of the country, Kevin Harvick.

He rolled the dice once more a couple of years later when he brought in outsiders to his team, in the form of an investment group, supplying the financial wherewithal that would keep RCR moving forward, even to this day. It’s a business model that’s been copied by others in the sport.

Along the way, Childress hired a number of different drivers—some of whom paid off with wins, but since Earnhardt, there’s been no additional Sprint Cup championship to talk about.

When the partnership with Harvick lost its magic (it happens) and both men decided it was time to part ways, Childress was faced with what may have been the biggest gamble of his career.

Or maybe he felt it was a sure thing.

Now, working with family doesn’t always guarantee the best results. It’s like working with friends, except when the friendship ends you often find a way to make the business side work. With family, it’s different. A lot different.

Childress had to know that turning to family to build a future for his racing organization would be the safest and best bet of all.

He likes to tell the story of how it all started, when his grandson Austin Dillon called him up to talk about racing. Childress describes it as “the most expensive phone call of his life.”

In the years that followed, both Austin and his younger brother Ty raced anything they could—go-karts, bandoleros, eventually graduating into late-model stock cars and ARCA before coming to NASCAR. They learned to respect the sport and those associated with it along the way, got a college education and managed to win quite a few races.

When Harvick announced that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing in the fall of 2012, NASCAR fans, social media and the racing media itself raised the idea that it was because too much attention was being focused on the grandsons at RCR. That may or may not have been true but isn’t a topic for discussion here.

No, the Harvick and Childress relationship went down the road many relationships travel. Things just came to an end. To this day, their split appears to have been amicable.

With Harvick gone, Childress was rolling the dice one more time. The bet was on family, and to win would mean the continued success of his racing organization and the continued employment of hundreds of talented people.

To make certain his bet was a sure thing, he anchored his Sprint Cup roster for 2014 with journeyman driver Paul Menard. Menard, the underrated 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, is often overlooked and under-appreciated as the pilot of the No. 27 car. His pairing with Daytona 500 winning crew chief Slugger Labbe turned Menard’s career around, changing him from being another rich kid in a race car to someone who is always a threat to win.

This week, Menard returns to the track where he won his only Cup race. To him, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a special place. He was along side his father John Menard for more than a decade as the older Menard fielded at cars in the Indy 500 from 1999 to 2001. It included fielding a car for Tony Stewart in his IRL Championship season (1997).

“Indy is the greatest race track in the world,” Menard said pre-race. “It’s the one I circle every year, even before I won there. I spent a lot of time there as a kid watching IndyCar races.”  

Childress would also sign a seasoned veteran in Ryan Newman, winner of both the Daytona 500 (2008) and Brickyard 400 (2013). Newman began his career with Roger Penske, gaining invaluable knowledge that has made him a tough competitor. Childress knew he would adapt quickly to his new surroundings at RCR, much like he did during his brief stint as a part of Stewart-Haas Racing. And he paired him with crew chief Luke Lambert, although new to the crew chief role, he learned the trade alongside two of the top chiefs in the business in Todd Berrier and Scott Miller.

“I think the most important part of winning at Indy is appreciating the history of the Speedway and the history of all the race car drivers who have competed there,” said Newman. “To see the list of drivers who have actually fulfilled their dreams of winning there, it's pretty amazing."

Completing the possible trifecta is grandson Austin Dillon, who would drive with the team that Harvick left, the one that had 25-year veteran of NASCAR Gil Martin at the helm. Dillon’s embroiled in a tight battle with his chief rival for Rookie of the Year honors, Kyle Larson. Winless so far this season, he’s looking to get in the Chase on points.

Dillon’s season hasn’t been without controversy. Before it started, the number of his car changed from 29 to 3. That decision—to bring back the No. 3—is still the subject of much debate. It has angered some and caused others to become nostalgic for the days when the No. 3 struck terror in the rear view mirrors of drivers in the Sprint Cup Series.

“I have a lot of fond memories walking down pit road with my grandfather and watching races from the Pagoda,” said Dillon pre-race. “I remember him being perched up there watching his cars, so it's so cool now that I have a chance to add to that history. To become the fourth driver from Richard Childress Racing to win (Earnhardt Sr., Harvick and Menard) and to do it my first year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series would be crazy.”

Dillon was four years old when NASCAR first came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Younger brother Ty competes in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season. He’s fourth in points. He’ll eventually join his older brother in the Sprint Cup Series, strengthening the effort for RCR.

If you're gonna play the game, boy

You gotta learn to play it right – “The Gambler”

Winning doesn’t come easy in NASCAR. You need to know the players. And you’ve got to have all the right cards in your hand. More than four decades in racing has taught Richard Childress that the secret to survival is knowing what to throw away and what to keep.

He appears to be holding that sure bet on his organization’s future with a hand full of aces.

 

Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis

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