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Does Kevin Harvick's Daytona Shootout win mark a turning point for car owner Richard Childress?

  Kevin Harvick celebrates another Daytona victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Can Scott Miller get it done? Can Miller, the new competition director, start turning things around at Richard Childress' stock car operation?
   Well, judging from Kevin Harvick's winning start to SpeedWeeks, taking the Bud Shootout Saturday night in crash-ending thriller at Daytona International Speedway, and Jamie McMurray's impressive third-place finish in the 187-mile scramble in a Childress-powered car, the answer for Miller looks to be a resounding yes.
   Of course Daytona in February is it's own creature, with a distinctly different feel and touch from the NASCAR tour's 35 other events. So, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. says, the championship season really opens in California and Las Vegas and Atlanta in the coming weeks, and that's where a better judgment can be made about which team really has its act together.
   And Miller says he's leery about how the new flat-blade rear spoiler might change the equation, when NASCAR puts that on these cars sometime in March.
   For the moment, though, Miller and his men, particularly engine guys Danny Lawrence and Richie Gilmore, are looking pretty good.
   And remember what's hanging over all this – Childress has just been forced to cut back from four Cup teams to three, and he's now facing contract renewal talks with Harvick, who has had this ride since 2001.

  Greg Biffle (16) was up front for the final Shootout restart, but that pit stop gamble left him on worn tires....and under heavy pressure in the last miles (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Childress has been running the NASCAR tour since 1969, and 2009 was not one of his better seasons as a team owner.
   So he's plugged the veteran engineer/crew chief into the key role of competition director, moving him out of the Jeff  Burton camp to a larger role.
   "We identified the need for my position quite a while ago...but Jeff and I had had success together as a pair, so it was hard to break that up," Miller said.
   "But we didn't come out of the box in 2009 swinging. So it all seemed a good time (late last season) to change things. And with losing the fourth team (when sponsor Jack Daniels didn't renew), Todd (Berrier) was available as crew chief. So all the pieces just fell into place.
   "The crew chief's job, well, there aren't enough hours in the day to do that. So now I see myself as the crew chief's advocate; I can keep track of things for them, because I don't have to get my own car ready for the weekend. So I'll be filling in all those gaps.
   "That's something we've been lacking. We haven't had someone between the crew chiefs and all the engineering programs designed to make the cars go faster.
   "So my job is to make sure that what we do with the company is focused and directly related to the performance of the cars on Sunday."

   Car owner Richard Childress is celebrating more than 40 years in NASCAR's big leagues (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Of course RCR wasn't the only organization chasing Jimmie Johnson and the Rick Hendrick guys.
  "Unquestionably the Hendrick organization is the model," Miller says. "Four championships in a row....and all of their cars are contenders for winning every week. That's what we've got to be.
   "They have a lot of money over there, and that's hard for the rest of us to contend with. With all that success comes a lot of opportunities for sponsorship.
   "But we aren't throwing in the towel. We're going to go for it and get RCR back up front."
    Getting beaten by tricks?
   "Well, there is a certain amount of 'the trick of the week,'" Miller concedes. "But what will keep you up front over the long haul, is a focused effort, with engineering supporting the racing, and aerodynamics supporting the racing."
   One problem is that in this sport when someone falls behind, it's quite difficult to catch back up, much less get ahead. Rarely does a team start slow and then catch fire and run away down the stretch. And by this April, when the tour hits Phoenix and Texas, it should be pretty clear who has what, and who doesn't.


Scott Miller (L) was long-time crew chief for Jeff Burton (C), but now he's the 'super-crew-chief' for all three Richard Childress teams (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

"One of the hard things about the sport today is the difference between really competitive and just a mid-pack car is much closer," Miller explains. "It used to be that if you were a mid-pack car, your deficit was pretty large, so you could identify where your deficit was pretty clearly.
   "But everything on these cars is attention to detail. NASCAR has us in such a box with these rules that one little thing, one little thing there, all adds up to something.
   "So identifying your problem when you get behind is much more difficult than it's ever been.
   "Fortunately last year we were able to speculate early where our problems were and worked to correct them, and we've gotten back on track somewhat.
   "Will that carry us through this year? No; we always have to be in the forefront of trying to build better cars."
   Wouldn't just more speed make a big difference? Don't the Childress teams simply need to start qualifying better?
   Miller says all the drivers will be focusing on that.
   "Daytona is Daytona...everything really starts the following week (at California)," Miller says.
   "You have to let it bother you. If you don't, you won't come back with that fire and drive.
   "And at RCR every man has taken the bull by the horns and said 'We are going to make things better,' that's what I'm proud of."
   How did things get so off-track in 2008?
   "What we want to do is avoid making the mistake I felt we made at the end of 2008 – we were sort of sitting on our laurels, thinking we had gotten it all back.
   "But it couldn't have been more wrong when the race season started.
  "We have made some improvements, at the last part of the season, and the results showed. But this sport never sleeps and we've got to keep digging."
  The two parts of this sport are speed and what a driver can do with that speed at the end of the straightaway.
   "That's something we've all been working on forever in this sport...and Jimmie and Chad just have their stuff right, and they simply kicked our butt," Miller said.
   The new flat-blade rear spoiler, coming in about a month, to replace the rear wing, could be a game-changer. Or not, depending on how quickly teams can adjust. Big changes like that typically help the bigger teams, who have more resources to throw at the problem.
   "This new spoiler, it's not going to be as simple as just bolting on a new spoiler," Miller says. "It's going to require a whole new development program.
   "There's nothing wrong with the idea of the new spoiler. But the harsh reality is that work doesn't come cheap.
   "That's the Catch-22.
    "We want to make the cars better, but any change to the car really requires development work.
   "The new spoiler will change the air flow under the car, it will change the side-force characteristics of the car, it changes a lot of things.
   "Now we might not to have to change anything on our cars to adjust to the new spoiler. We don't know. But unless you do your due-diligence, you won't know...and you won't be racing like we know Hendrick is going to be racing. And that's who we've got to beat.
    "Any thing NASCAR changes, Hendrick will probably be able to respond more quickly than the rest of us. The best chance we have for us to catch up is for things to be stable.
    "But more power to them; I'm not going to downplay Hendrick Motorsports – they've set the bar really high.....and we know if we can beat them, we've done something really special."
      However with NASCAR's current testing limits teams that can run at Goodyear's tire tests may wind up with a distinct advantage by race day.
   Burton and others have complained about that, and NASCAR is expected to have Goodyear change its pick of teams – instead of picking a driver from each of the four manufacturers' camps (which would benefit an operation like Roger Penske's, since he has the only Dodge operation), Goodyear will likely start rotating tests among various teams, rather including every manufacturer at each test.
    Miller:  "That's something we've all talked about – the inequities in the tire testing. You can't say it's equal. But unless they add more cars to the tests, I don't know how you're going to make it equal."
   Why not just open up testing again, and let teams test on the real tour tracks with the rear race tires?
   Greg Biffle suggests that NASCAR give teams two such 'open' tests during the season, and each organization gets to pick which two tracks it wants to test at. But only two tracks per team.
   Opening up testing the way it used to be, Miller says, is probably not feasible, because it would simply be too expensive.
   But Biffle's suggestion merits thought.


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  Scott Miller: charged with making 2010 a better season for Richard Childress Racing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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