Austin Dillon Succeeded, Veterans Struggled for Richard Childress Racing in 2016

Photo: HHP/Alan Marler

Attempting to accurately gauge Richard Childress Racing’s (RCR) 2016 proves difficult because, more so than with any other team in the paddock – save perhaps for Hendrick Motorsports – it depends on who you ask.

Ask Austin Dillon, a third year driver that rebounded from a tumultuous 2015 to earn his first Chase berth, and he’d likely give you a thumbs up.

Ask either of his veteran teammates, however, and they’d probably tell you 2016 was a year to forget.

In essence, 2016 was a role reversal of the previous season.

Coming off of a surprising runner-up result in the championship battle in 2014, Ryan Newman continued to lead the way for RCR in 2015, rifling off consistent finishes in the top 15 to race his way into the Chase. While Dillon struggled through a sophomore slump, Paul Menard managed to join Newman in the playoff with a late spurt of serviceable runs.

Neither driver made a big push in the playoffs, but the presence of the RCR’s two veteran shoes in the postseason inspired hope that they could continue their success in 2016.

Instead, it was the team’s prospect that shined brightest.

Coming off a subpar sophomore season, which has seen him manage just one top five, Dillon came out of the gate strong in 2016. The 2013 XFINITY Series (NXS) champion scored two top fives and four top 10s in the opening six races, boosting him up to seventh in the series standings.

The elder Dillon dropped outside of the top 10 in points just three weeks later after a group of bad runs at Texas Motor Speedway (19th), Bristol Motor Speedway (26th) and Richmond International Raceway (20th), but quickly stabilized his position with a third-place performance at Talladega Superspeedway the following week.

From that point on, Dillon became incredibly consistent, finishing 16th or better in 12 of the ensuing 16 races to stay inside of the Chase grid.

However, while Dillon found modest success, his teammates struggled.

Known for his ability to consistently maneuver a car to the checkered flag – a feat he’d managed in at least 34 of the year’s 36 points-paying events in every season since 2010 – Menard limped through the regular season amid a slew of crashes and engine woes.

Menard hadn’t been stellar in his 2015 campaign, but the veteran’s talent for keeping his No. 27 Chevrolet in one piece and decent performances proved strong enough to elevate the Eau Claire, Wisc., native into his first playoff appearance.

However, while his speed remained the same in 2016, Menard’s unexpected inconsistency ended his hopes of a repeat Chase appearance before they had any chance to come to fruition.

Menard’s bad luck began in the fourth race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway, where a crash on lap 105 ended his day and sent the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner free-falling to 26th in the series standings.

The Wisconsinite battled back to as low as 21st in the standings over the following weeks, but quickly dropped back to 23rd with back-to-back DNFs at Talladega (crash) and Kansas Speedway (blown motor).

With three DNFs in the opening 11 races, Menard’s playoff hopes hinged upon his No. 27 team’s ability to get to victory lane. However, the team never found themselves in contention, finishing no better than 10th in the final 15 races of the regular season.

Plagued by issues, Menard never even cracked the top 20 to inspire hope for a playoff spot on points.

Newman, on the other hand, was in contention to the bitter end.

Now in his third year with RCR, Newman came into 2016 as the organization’s leader, having rode consistency as far as the Championship 4 over his first to seasons.

Unsurprisingly, Newman was consistent again in 2016. However, a slight lack of the occasional strong runs seen over the prior two years left him just short of earning a shot at racing’s top prize.

Newman’s stats from 2014 and 2015 were eerily similar, and both strong enough to earn him a relatively comfortable ride to the Chase, even without a victory. The South Bend, Ind., native had managed five top fives in both seasons, 16 and 15 top 10s in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and his average finish had dropped just .8 from 12.7 to 13.5 in his second season.

In 2016, Newman’s stats took a slight step backwards. The Hoosier managed only two top fives and 10 top 10s, and his average finish dropped from a respectable 13.5 down to a pedestrian 15.7.

Those drops might not sound like much, but for Newman, whose consistency was his lone ticket into the Chase, the small plummet was enough to keep him out of playoff contention.

Newman rose as high as 11th in the standings over the summer months, but in the end the No. 31 team found themselves needing a strong run in the season finale at Richmond to elevate themselves into the Chase for a third-straight year.

Those playoff hopes would come to a quick end in the late stages of the event, as Newman collided with former Stewart-Haas Racing boss and teammate Tony Stewart in a crash that both ended the Hoosier’s Chase hopes and led to a hate-filled tirade in the garage area shortly after the incident.

With Newman and Menard out of contention, Dillon rose as the sole playoff hope for RCR. While he didn’t match Newman’s underdog drive in 2014, the 26-year-old’s consistency led him to within inches of a Round of 8 berth.

Dillon struggled in the first two weeks of the Chase, rattling off finishes of 16th and 14th in his postseason debut. However, a strong eighth-place run at Dover International Speedway, paired with the motor woes of Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, helped Dillon land the final spot in the Round of 12.

From there, Dillon ramped up the aggression. The Welcome, N.C., native was running in the top five on tire strategy the following week at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he was involved in a large crash, sending him home with a disappointing 32nd-place finish.

In the previous two seasons, that result alone would’ve been enough to bury the young shoe’s Chase hopes, but an unusually high attrition rate for Chasers allowed the No. 3 team to keep battling. A sixth-place run at Kansas helped the team go into Talladega with a shot to advance.

The shot would ultimately fall short, by the tiniest of margins.

Dillon ended a difficult 500 miles in Talladega with a ninth-place result, enough to tie him with Denny Hamlin for what would have been the final Chase position on points. However, Hamlin advanced on a tiebreaker courtesy of his third-place finish in the race.

After his elimination, Dillon sank in the points, finishing outside of the top 10 in each of the final four races. The 26-year-old ultimately ended his third season 14th in the series standings.

Ultimately, the main stat RCR will be remembered for is, for the third-straight year, a zero. The organization has still failed to reach victory lane since former organization leader Kevin Harvick left for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Beyond that, 2016 was a bit of a mixed bag. The organization’s results were largely similar to 2015, with one more top 10 (26), two fewer top fives (6) and a slight drop in average finish from 17.21 to 17.86.

The lone category RCR can truthfully say they improved in was qualifying.

After two decades of poor qualifying performances, RCR finally found improvement in 2016. The company’s 15.9 average start was their best mark since 1996, and their two poles tied 2007 for their best season i the last decade.

Given those stats, the team appears to be arriving at the track with speed. Should that trend continue, then their biggest challenge going forward will be maintaining the early track position to improve their finishes.

On the XFINITY Series side, 2016 was a good year, if underwhelming in performance. Save for a couple spirited drives from the elder Dillon and a road-course victory from Michael McDowell, RCR wasn’t quite able to match the speed of Joe Gibbs Racing or JR Motorsports to contend for victories on a consistent basis.

The company did place a series-best three teams in the inaugural XFINITY Series Chase, but all three drivers – Ty Dillon, Brandon Jones and Brendan Gaughan – were eliminated before the Championship 4.

After three years in the NXS, the Ty Dillon will move up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017 with Germain Racing. Filling his void will be Daniel Hemric, a former late model ace picked up from Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series after a strong 2016 season.

Hemric’s signing is noteworthy, as is Dillon’s success at the Cup Series level. However, both drivers -and their teammates- will need some help to achieve RCR’s largest goals in 2017 and beyond.

From the top level down, RCR just needs more speed.

Consistency might be enough to earn Chase berths, and even contend down the stretch. But under the new Chase format, if RCR can’t win when it counts, the championship will remain elusive, however close it may come.

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