NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Richard Childress Racing

Reenergized after the No. 3 returned to victory lane, RCR is looking to get both of its cars into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

2021 Richard Childress Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Austin Dillon 3 Justin Alexander Dow/Bass Pro Shops/American Ethanol/Symbicort
Tyler Reddick 8 Randall Burnett Caterpillar/Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen/Alsco

History

RCR is best known for running the No. 3 Chevrolet, which Childress himself ran for a majority of his own full-time driving career (1973-81). The numeral was made legendary by Dale Earnhardt, who drove it to 67 victories and six of his record seven NASCAR Cup Series titles (1986-87, 1990-91, 1993-94). It was retired after Earnhardt’s tragic passing after a wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 but it returned to the Cup level when Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon began his own full-time endeavors in 2014. Kevin Harvick drove the car, under No. 29 branding, for 13 seasons before departing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Childress opened a second full-time vehicle in 1997, with the current No. 8 Chevrolet running under previous identities of Nos. 30, 07, and 27. Notable names to pass through each respective incarnation include Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, and Paul Menard.

2020 in Review

The 2019 Cup Series season had been a struggle for RCR, as the team failed to put a car in the top 20 in points for the first time in its full-time racing days, a streak dating back to 1976. Reddick, the winner of back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series championships, took over the No. 8 from Daniel Hemric while Dillion was reunited with crew chief Justin Alexander. The latter pair previously united for a last-lap victory at the 2018 Daytona 500, the No. 3’s first victory in the Great American Race since Earnhardt captured a long-sought-after triumph in the 1998 edition.

Their reunion paid big dividends. Dillon earned one of the best seasons of his career and ended an 88-race win drought at the O’Reilly Auto Parts at Texas in July. The win secured his spot in the postseason, which came up big when he was forced to skip August’s Daytona road course event due to a positive COVID-19 test (Kaz Grala brought the No. 3 home in seventh in his absence). He further impressed in the opening round of the playoffs, earning consecutive top-five finishes in the first two races (including a runner-up at the opener in Darlington). Dillon’s 11th-place finish of the standings tied a career-best previously set in 2017.

Reddick got off to a decent start to his career, leading the 2020 rookie class with three top fives and nine top tens. He was in contention for wins at several points during the season, including the aforementioned Texas event, where his runner-up posting created the first RCR sweep of the first couple spots since October 2011 at Talladega (Bowyer and Burton). Reddick nearly stole a playoff spot during the regular season finale at Daytona, but his involvement in a late wreck forced him to watch from the outside.

Meet the Drivers

Austin Dillon

Experience: 7th season
Career Cup Victories: 3 (last: Texas, summer 2020)
2020 finish: 11th (Round of 12)
Best standings finish: 11th (2017, 2020)

A target’s always going to be on Dillon’s back because of his status as both Earnhardt’s successor in the No. 3 and as Childress’ grandson. Dillon had proven his racing mettle at several points in the past, winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series title and the 2013 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, as well as his aforementioned Daytona triumph. That meant little to NASCAR’s hard-to-please fanbase, but it appears that the latter stages of 2020 could be the start of something bigger for Dillon and the No. 3 team.

“I hope we can keep giving them something to talk about…The confidence is building,” Dillon said after a fourth-placing finish at Richmond in September. “I feel like a lot of people know that we’re here right now. And even if I get knocked out, eventually the naysayers are going to say, ‘See, I told you so,’ so I’m not worried about all that. My confidence comes from within my group. I’m so proud of the team that I’ve got surrounded by around me.”

Dillon might be glad to see on-track qualifying return to select races this season. He was one of six drivers to sit on the pole in at least three races during the 2019 season.

Tyler Reddick

Experience: 2nd season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 19th
Best standings finish: 19th (2020)

Reddick was by far the most consistent of the 2020 Cup rookie group. His lack of victories cost him the official award, with brief playoff contender Cole Custer taking it home through his triumph at Kentucky.

“He always wants as much as he can’t he’s a champion. He’s done a great job this year found a lot of speed at different tracks,” Dillon said of his teammates rookie season prior to the playoffs. “I think he did and does has done an amazing job all year as a rookie and I think it’ll be in the playoffs for years to come. So it’s one of those things that he’s probably disappointed that but I think everybody knows that he’s got the speed and the pace to win races and get in the playoffs as a real contender for years to come.”

Outlook

Last season saw RCR vehicles take down several dubious streaks, but there’s plenty of work to be done. No RCR participant has finished in the top ten of the standings since Ryan Newman’s runner-up posting in 2014 while driving the defunct No. 31. RCR is also looking to put multiple cars in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, when Dillon and Newman finished 11th and 16th respectively. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Reddick earn his first Cup Series win and playoff berth in 2021, while Dillon can truly force the racing world to take notice if he can make it to the semifinal round of eight this fall.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kaz Grala lived the dream in first Cup Series start

Taking over for Austin Dillon, Kaz Grala enjoyed an incredible weekend in substitute duties at the NASCAR Cup Series level.

This weekend, stock car driver Kaz Grala took over one of NASCAR’s most iconic rides, competed against his childhood hero, brought the vehicle home in one piece, finished in the top ten (seventh, to be precise), and even led some laps at one of the sport’s most hallowed grounds.

How was your weekend?

Grala, 21, is used to setting landmarks in the realm of racing, especially at Daytona International Speedway. At 18, Grala became the youngest NASCAR winner in the history of the track when he won the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (now Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series) opener.

That win allowed him to begin the youngest participant in a NASCAR postseason session en route to a seventh-place finish in the final standings. Grala is also the youngest driver to compete in the Daytona-based International Motor Sports Association. Currently, he works as a part-time driver on the second-tier Xfinity Series for Richard Childress Racing, primarily running their road course endeavors. His No. 21 Chevrolet came home fourth in last week’s Xfinity race at Road America, moving up one spot from a visit last season.

Thus, Grala was an ideal choice to fill in for RCR’s Cup ride: the No. 3 Chevrolet for the Go Bowling 235 on Sunday afternoon. Originally scheduled for Watkins Glen International in Schuyler County, the race was the first NASCAR Cup Series race held at Daytona’s 3.6-mile road course.

Best known for hosting 17 years of Dale Earnhardt’s finest NASCAR endeavors, the vehicle is currently piloted by Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson. The 30-year-old Dillon has been forced to temporarily vacate the car after self-reporting a positive test for COVID-19. Dillon will be allowed to resume racing once he receives two negative tests. He’s locked into the NASCAR playoffs thanks to a win at Texas Motor Speedway last month.

In the meantime, it was Grala that took over the ride at Daytona. He is the first driver other than Earnhardt or Dillon to drive the No. 3 since Ricky Rudd in 1983.

The numeral has significant meaning to Grala beyond Earnhardt. He has worn the numeral in several forms of racing as a tribute to his father Darius, who is primarily known as an endurance racer. The elder Grala has run the 24 Hours of Daytona three times.

“It’s certainly been overwhelming,” Kaz Grala said in a postrace Zoom call. “I took my time on the grid and on the pace laps to really soak it in and understand the gravity of that moment. It’s unbelievable to be racing in the Cup Series under any circumstances but to do it in the No. 3 car was just incredible.”

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my Cup debut would come in it, but I’m so grateful to Richard and everybody at Richard Childress Racing for believing in me and trusting me behind the wheel of one of their Cup cars because that’s their main business right there, so it was an honor to know that they trust me behind the wheel.”

Because of the late driver change, the No. 3 had to start at the back of the field for the start of the 65-lap event. Thanks to NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula, Dillon was originally slated to start 10th before the adjustment was made.

Grala wasn’t expecting miracles in his first Cup Series start. No driver, after all, has ever won in their Cup debut and some of the greatest have struggled mightily in their freshman races. For Grala, merely completing all 65 laps would’ve been enough of a win. Thus, he wasn’t expecting to make it back to the top ten after he was sent to the rear of the field.

Had the No. 3 remained in the fifth row, Grala would’ve started directly in front of his idol and favorite driver Jimmie Johnson. Grala was an avid viewer of NASCAR during Johnson’s heyday, when he captured an unprecedented five consecutive NASCAR Cup Series titles. Johnson is set to retire from full-time racing at the end of the 2020 season.

“I’ve always looked up to him. I thought coming into this year I’d never get a chance to race against him before he retired,” Grala said. “Already going into this race, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world just to know that he’d be on the track at the same time as me, and of course because of Austin’s run last weekend in Michigan the car was scored as starting P10, even though we had to drop to the back, so we did the pace laps in 10th and I think Jimmie was 11th or 12th or something. My moment was in the pace laps looking in the mirror and seeing that 48, thinking that was the coolest thing ever.”

Once the green flag flew, Grala mostly bided his time toward the back of the field. No driver had run laps in a stock car prior to Sunday’s endeavor, but he kept the No. 3 as clean as he could. Working on a different pit strategy, pitting toward the end of the two 15-lap stages to open the race, Grala was staying out of trouble and moving up the field.

He admitted that a 31-minute delay for lightning was instrumental to his success. Drivers had trouble dealing with heat and exhaustion on a hot, humid, Daytona afternoon. One driver, JJ Yeley, had to vacate his ride, leaving Bayley Currey to finish things off.

Only adding to Grala’s woes was the fact that the car wasn’t prepared for him, leaving him more uncomfortable than normal in Dillon’s seat.

“I hate to admit how much the lightning delay probably did help me kind of reset, refresh,” he said. “These Cup cars are hot, they’re physical. Road courses are physical in general, and these races are long.  It’s the real deal out there for sure, and you’re racing guys that are really, really good. From a mental and physical standpoint, you are really extending yourself as much as possible.”

Once things got back underway, he was racing at the outskirts of the top ten. His endeavors assisted by the drivers ahead of him pitting, Grala wound up navigating the inevitable: at lap 50, Grala was scored at the race leader.

The No. 3 Chevrolet wound leading three laps before it visited pit road for its final stop of the day. Grala credited crew chief Justin Alexander, Dillon’s regular crew chief, for creating a strategy that allowed him to pace the field, if only for a short while.

“That was pretty cool to get to lead some laps in my first Cup race. I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case, but it definitely was a lot of fun,” Grala said of his time upfront. “Justin Alexander called an excellent strategy. I thought we made the right moves. There were a few other guys with us on that strategy. We weren’t the only one, but I definitely think it was the way to go. It helped me out, and for me personally, I like to be on attack, and being a rookie in the series, there was no doubt guys were pushing me around on restarts a little. To put ourselves in position for most of the day to try to be on as good or better tires than the guys around us was a really good thing and helped me from getting shoved around too much.”

After an accident involving Kyle Busch with about five laps to go, Grala restarted ninth against some experienced drivers with fresher tires. In the midst of the shuffling over the final stages, the No. 3 Chevrolet actually moved on his position from both the start and lap one, creating his final posting of seventh. He was unable to beat Johnson but was nonetheless all smiles at the end of the day.

“To find out we actually finished three spots even better than we ran on the pace lap, that was pretty cool,” Grala said. “Still didn’t beat Jimmie! I wish. That would have been really cool, but I could see him. That’s great enough.”

Grala made it clear that his situation with the No. 3 is meant to be temporary. He wished Dillon well and happily revealed that the 2018 Daytona 500 winner was experiencing only mild symptoms and that Dillon’s wife Whitney and son Ace were healthy. AJ Allmendinger is, in fact, RCR’s standard backup driver, but he was barred from competing in the Cup race because of his participation in Saturday’s Xfinity event. Thus, it’s unknown if Grala will be back for a doubleheader at Dover International Speedway that starts on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Nonetheless, Grala is excited to see what the future holds. First on his list is hopefully securing a full-time ride that will allow him to compete for an Xfinity title.

“It was an amazing experience getting to run this weekend, but we certainly all hope that Austin is back in the car and competing again next weekend,” he said. ”

 It would be a huge advantage for me to be able to run full-time.  I would love to be able to run and chase an Xfinity Series championship with them, and certainly, the ultimate goal is to make it to racing on Sundays every weekend.”

“Hopefully, you’ll see me back here on a Sunday someday in the future.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Austin Dillon ends a victory drought, steals another playoff spot

A bold decision from Dillon and teammate Tyler Reddick allowed Richard Childress Racing to recapture NASCAR glory at Texas Motor Speedway.

How ’bout that cowboy?

Once known for his array of cowboy hats in the garage area, Austin Dillon took home a long-awaited in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Dillon and rookie teammate Tyler Reddick united to create a one-two finish for Richard Childress Racing.

“Having Tyler right there to work with, he has a teammate that he’s really working good with,” team owner Richard Childress said afterward. “To see both those guys racing for the win, I was hoping they didn’t wreck each other. It was pretty cool to see RCR in the front.”

RCR is perhaps best known for winning six NASCAR Cup Series titles with Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3 Chevrolet. On Sunday, Dillon piloted the same car to victory lane for the first time in 88 races. Their previous victory came in the 2018 Daytona 500 and Sunday saw them sweep the top spots for the first time since October 2011 (when Clint Bowyer held off Jeff Burton to win the fall Talladega event).

Dillon, the grandson of Childress, has driven the No. 3 since 2014. His Chevrolet is the first to adorn the No. 3 since Earnhardt’s passing at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Sunday marked Dillon’s third win in the car, having previously won two of NASCAR’s crown jewels. He also won the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 via fuel mileage.

“Sports are sports. You got to have someone you don’t like,” Dillon said of fans’ perception of him. “Maybe it’s just my background, where I come from.  But I got a lot of people that love me, too.  It doesn’t bother me at all really. They can either get on the bandwagon and love me. It’s okay. It’s part of sports. Haters are going to hate sometimes, but we’ll be all right.”

Both Dillon and Reddick hovered in the middle of the pack for most of the 334-lap event. Reddick worked his way back from two laps down by the time the final, 124-lap stage rolled around. Ryan Blaney had won the first two segments, lasting 107 laps each, en route to leading a race-best 150 circuits. It appeared the race would come down to Blaney and Denny Hamlin as green flag pit stops cycled through, but Quin Houff’s accident with 28 laps set up a chance for teams who stretched their fuel runs (last pitting at circa lap 220) to pit under easier circumstances.

With Blaney, Hamlin, and other contenders still a lap down before the pit cycle was complete, both Reddick and Dillon enacted bold strategies for the finish. Reddick took fuel only, while Dillon opted only for left-side tires. The fresher wheels allowed Dillon to move ahead of his teammate and build a sizable lead.

Two separate incidents (both involving Hamlin) brought out the yellow flag twice, forcing Dillon to undergo the restart process all over again. He was able to re-establish his lead on each occasion while Reddick held off hungry contenders like Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. With the win, Dillon more or less clinched a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Logano came home third while Busch and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

A surprise winner rose to the occasion in the final laps for the second straight week, following up rookie Cole Custer’s win at Kentucky Speedway last weekend. Reddick and his No. 8 Chevrolet are currently 14 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final postseason spot.

The NASCAR Cup Series will enter the second half of its 36-race season with the Super Starter Batteries 400 on Thursday night at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Harvick made his 700th Cup Series start on Sunday, becoming the 18th driver to do so and second on the active circuit (joining Kurt Busch). He ironically began his Cup career at RCR in 2001, taking over for Earnhardt after his passing (in a rebranded No. 29 Chevrolet). Harvick leads the point standings by 91 points over Blaney at the midway mark.

 

  • The red flag came out on lap 220 for a multi-car wreck that ended the days of Custer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Ryan Preece. Martin Truex Jr. also sustained heavy damage.

 

  • Kyle Busch and Timmy Hill each partook in all three national series events at Texas this weekend. Busch in fact won the Xfinity and Truck races on Saturday, but had the former win revoked after his No. 54 Toyota failed postrace inspection (runner-up Austin Cindric was granted the win). Hill’s best finish was 17th in the Xfinity event, but he was honored by the speedway for winning the O’Reilly Auto Parts 125, part of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series held during the coronavirus-induced pause.

 

  • Hendrick Motorsports had a brutal day at Texas, with only Chase Elliott (12th) finishing the race. Johnson hit the wall and finished 12 laps down in 26th while William Byron’s day ended early after wrecking with Ty Dillon (Austin’s brother). Byron is two points behind Johnson for the final playoff spot. Alex Bowman, locked into the playoff after winning at California, crashed with Hamlin late in the race and finished 30th.

 

  • Pole sitter Aric Almirola led 35 laps and finished 10th, extending his streak of top decalogue finishes to seven.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags