CHARLOTTE, N.C. " Statistics make it difficult to find much wrong with Richard Childress Racing, which has three drivers in the top 16 of the Sprint Cup Series standings.
But a poor showing at Phoenix International Raceway, where their cars are typically strong, proved RCR has a ways to go before it can realistically win a championship.
The biggest concern is with Kevin Harvick, a two-time Phoenix winner who finished 30th on Saturday night. It was his worst showing on the desert track in six seasons, and extended his winless streak to 79 points races dating back to the 2007 Daytona 500.
He was off all weekend at Phoenix and lapped early in the race, leading him to grumble to his crew about the No. 29 team's poor effort.
"At least we can't blame it on traffic, because we can't stay close enough to even race," he radioed as the leaders passed.
It was Harvick's second consecutive poor outing, and gives him four finishes of 28th or worse on the season. In two weeks, he's now dropped six spots in the standings to 16th, albeit only 77 points out of the final qualifying spot for the Chase for the championship.
But Clint Bowyer, whose fast success in RCR's brand new fourth entry has been one of NASCAR's biggest surprises of the season, also struggled in Phoenix. His 26th-place finish was his worst of the year " following a 22nd the race before at Texas " and cost him two more spots in the standings. After rising to second in the points, he's now down to sixth.
"We came here with an experimental setup and with the lack of testing, you have to try different things in order to gain ground," he said after the race. "We ran well here last year, but felt we needed to improve on what we had. Unfortunately, what we tried didn't work for us."
Jeff Burton led the RCR effort at Phoenix with a 15th-place finish, but he lost four positions over the final few laps and said afterward his car needed to be better. Casey Mears was 20th, and had a late-race skirmish with Dale Earnhardt Jr. that spilled over to the cooldown lap. Earnhardt intentionally spun Mears after the race, and Mears answered by bumping him on pit road.
It capped a long night that exposed weaknesses in the RCR program, which is widely considered among the top four in NASCAR.
But while the other top teams knock down wins at a rapid pace, RCR drivers have made their mark through consistency. Bowyer, Burton and Harvick have combined for only 12 wins over the past three seasons, but they've totaled 155 top-10 finishes. All three have made the Chase the past two seasons.
Consistency is nice, and makes RCR a very formidable team. But if Childress wants to knock rival car owner Rick Hendrick from the top, he's got to find a way to get his cars into Victory Lane. Hendrick has won three races this season, while Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing have two victories each.
Childress, meanwhile, is winless in 2009 and has lagged far behind the top competition in that category since Harvick's five-win 2006 season.
Bowyer isn't sure why the RCR cars fall short of their pursuit of the trophy. Although he moved from the established No. 07 team this season as Childress brought in Mears and expanded to four cars, he's been able to take his new group near the front " only to fall short of the final goal.
He has four top-five finishes, including a runner-up to Kyle Busch in Las Vegas.
Burton credits the consistency with Childress' mandate to build reliable cars that don't suffer parts failures " the boss won't push things over the edge while looking for a gain over the competition.
That conservative approach helped RCR build its pattern of consistency, but there's no telling how much it may have hurt them in terms of winning races. Although Burton insists their cars are as good as the competition, and he's pleased with the power in their motors, he acknowledged a longtime company struggle in finding speed.
"We struggle on restarts, our cars don't make the grip that other people's make," he said. "We're not terrible, but we're not great."
We're good, we're really good and we're in some really good company. But we're not winning. For us to achieve all the goals that we want to achieve, we've got to find a way to win race."