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Childress team hoping to close in on Hendrick

WELCOME, N.C. - Dale Earnhardt's death left Richard Childress thinking it was time to find another way to make a living.

Almost seven years later, Childress and his team, Richard Childress Racing, have made a complete turnaround.

With two successful seasons behind RCR and especially with its new engine program - a combined effort with Dale Earnhardt Inc. - running smoothly after coming together midway through 2007, Childress isn't conceding anything to the top NASCAR team, Hendrick Motorsports.

'You know, our team has won 44 races (in NASCAR's top three series) in the past two years,' Childress said during a Sprint Media Tour stop at the sprawling RCR complex about 40 miles north of Charlotte. 'So that shows we've got a pretty solid engine program.'

Heading into the 2008 season, the Hendrick juggernaut, which won 18 of 36 races last season and has added more star power with Dale Earnhardt Jr. joining the team, is a heavy favorite to win another championship. Yet Childress is confident.

'You've got to look at several areas where (Hendrick) beat us in last year,' Childress said. 'We think that we've strengthened those areas.'

The road to a championship wasn't always this clear for Childress, who considered leaving the sport he loves.

After Earnhardt, who won six of his seven NASCAR championships while driving the famed No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, was killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, Childress was crushed and demoralized - and it showed in his team's results.

'We struggled for two or three years,' Childress said. 'In 2001, I wanted to quit racing. I wanted to get out. And, in 2002, our hearts weren't in it.'

But Childress, himself a longtime journeyman racer, still felt the pull of the sport. And his focus returned over time.

'I think, in 2004, everybody started pulling harder together and looking at what we needed to do,' he said. 'I spent Christmas that year in the engine shop and then spent time in every area talking with our people. I knew that if we were going to ever come back and be a factor in NASCAR we had to make a lot of changes. So, at that point, we started making changes.'

Things took a big turn for the better in 2006, with both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton qualifying for the season-ending Chase for the Championship. Last year, the team was even stronger, placing Harvick, Burton and second-year driver Clint Bowyer in the Chase.

Bowyer made a surprising run at the title and wound up third to the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

'I felt like, given the right opportunity, if (the Hendrick drivers) stubbed their toe, yes, we could make a run for the championship,' Bowyer said. 'But we were just kind of behind and just stayed that way.'

The biggest change for RCR heading into the new season is the move to bring longtime employee Will Lind back to the Cup program as director of competition. Lind will share responsibility for running the team's Cup effort with general manager Mike Dillon, Childress' son-in-law and another former racer.

'I'm not doing as good a job as I need to,' Childress said. 'I'm tied up with sponsors and media. I'll do over 100 sponsor appearances this year and I can't do as good a job in the competition as I used to. I want to bring my people in to make this thing work better and I've got people coming in who are going to help me be a better CEO.

'Will's worked with every one of these drivers and the crew chiefs. They have a tremendous amount of respect for him.'

Dillon, who can now concentrate on budget, engineering and other non-competition areas, is just as happy as Childress that Lind is willing to take on the new task.

'I'm the guy who was pushing for that,' Dillon said. 'As far as I'm concerned, it's a no-brainer. It's going to make me look good.'

Harvick, the driver who took over the team's No. 1 ride after Earnhardt's death, is confident that this could be the breakthrough season for RCR.

'The confidence here right now is pretty high,' Harvick said. 'This team didn't need a major overhaul in any part of the organization (over the winter), it just needed minor adjustments.'

Asked if they've closed the gap between RCR and Hendrick, Harvick smiled and said, 'If we haven't closed the gap all the way, we've closed it some. We've got a plan and that's really all you can ask for.'

As for Childress, he still misses the elder Earnhardt every day, but his enthusiasm for the sport is back to full tilt.

'People say, 'Why do you keep doing it?' Childress said. 'I want to win. We want to win a championship.

'Our goal is to get back on that stage in New York with one of these drivers. We push hard for that. We've won in Busch, we've won that championship, but the Cup is what drives us.'