With long history in sport, Childress ready for Friday's Hall of Fame induction
RELATED: Mark Martin on what drove him to success Richard Childress will go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday night with perhaps a bit more of an appreciation than most, having spent the better part of his life tied snugly to the sport of stock car racing. It's been his livelihood and his lifeblood. From selling snacks as a youngster in the grandstands at a local track to overseeing a racing organization today that boasts more than 500 employees, Childress is one of the few still around that has seen and done it all. Childress, 71, will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday along with fellow team owners Rick Hendrick and Raymond Parks and former drivers Mark Martin and Benny Parsons (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Incredible stories shadow each of this year's inductees. The story of Childress' rise from dropout to multi-millionaire is no less so. Today, his Richard Childress Racing organization fields three full-time teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and three in the NASCAR XFINITY Series . His teams have won 12 championships and 214 races across NASCAR's three national series (Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, XFINITY and Camping World Truck). Six of his championships came with driver Dale Earnhardt, an inaugural member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and regarded by many as one of the sport's most talented and influential drivers. "I'm sure every one of the inductees are very proud," Childress said last week during a round of media availabilities for this year's Hall of Fame Class. "My feeling is, I started out selling peanuts and popcorn at Bowman-Gray Stadium watching my heroes, Billy and Bobby Myers, Curtis Turner and Glen Wood, these guys race and that's all I ever wanted to do was become a race driver." He worked full time to live his dream part-time until the pull of the racing won out and for the longest time it looked like a fool's errand. Money didn't flow and bills piled up but like everyone else chasing a dream, Childress was undeterred. At 24, he got his first big break, competing at Talladega Superspeedway after many of NASCAR's top stars, citing tire concerns, boycotted the race. He returned home to purchase a small parcel of land with the money he earned from that weekend's races, and started his own auto repair business. "I left there with more money than I'd ever seen at one time," he said. Being his own boss also kept his NASCAR dream alive. He jumped in full time in 1976 as an owner/driver at a time when only a handful of teams had the support and the finances to contend for wins on a consistent basis. "I can remember the days when we had to syphon the fuel out of the race car to get home, put it in the tow car," Childress said. "A lot of people don't understand how it was back in the early '70s … what not just me but everyone was going through. You had the Pettys, Junior Johnson, Bud Moore, there were about four big teams … those were the guys you were racing against." His second big break came in the early '80s when he made the decision to focus on ownership and leave the driving to someone else. Earnhardt came and went, driving a handful of races at the end of the '81 season. A two-year stint with Ricky Rudd helped the team turn the corner and build the consistency necessary to compete for wins on a regular basis. By '84, Earnhardt had returned and RCR had improved its product tremendously. " Ricky was a young, up and coming driver and I think we both helped each other a lot," Childress said. "He helped me as a car owner and I think we helped him as a driver, with the past driving experience I had and as an owner being able to work with a driver was totally different. I think it was a learning experience for all of us. "When Dale came back in '84 I was much more comfortable as an owner at that point." It's been three years since a driver for RCR won in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series although all three of its current drivers -- Austin Dillon , Paul Menard and Ryan Newman -- have qualified for the Chase on one or more occasions. Childress, winless as a driver in 285 career starts, remains positive and focused. No different than when he was just starting out with little more than a dream and a desire. "You had to have a passion," he said. "Even when I was driving and wasn't winning … I never started a race that I didn't think this was going to be the day that the big boys had a problem and I was going to be able to come in there and win. "Just the sheer drive of wanting to succeed, that's what kept me going." And it's led him right into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Gordon ties Ricky Rudd for most consecutive starts
RELATED: Watch Gordon's first Chicagoland win JOLIET, Ill. -- Jeff Gordon made his 788th consecutive start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on Sunday, equaling the series record established by former driver Ricky Rudd . Barring some catastrophic occurrence, a week from now at New Hampshire Motor Speedway , the 44-year-old will break Rudd's longstanding mark. From his first start on Nov. 20, 1992 through this weekend's myAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway , Gordon has been one of the few constants in the series. Primary sponsorship of the series has changed -- what was Winston Cup is now Sprint Cup ; tracks have been added and subtracted; cars have evolved, rules have been re-written. Champions have come and champions have gone. Gordon, however, has persevered. Since his first start in Sprint Cup , he has always driven the No. 24 Chevrolet and he has always driven for owner Rick Hendrick. "That's one of those things I feel strange talking about because I do appreciate and respect the safety of this sport and the side that it can be taken away from you at any time," Gordon said of the milestone. "I want to break that record. I think it's a huge accomplishment because it's not that easy to do. It's easier today I think because the sport is safer. "I look at Ricky Rudd ; what he went through to make it is pretty extraordinary so I can't quite compare to that, but I've been in this sport a long time, I've been in every single race and that is definitely a stat that I will look back on and be very proud of when we accomplish that at New Hampshire." NASCAR Hall of Fame member and 1988 series champion Bill Elliott won the race at Atlanta in which Gordon made his first Sprint Cup start. In an unusual twist, Chase Elliott , Bill's son, will take over the driving duties of the No. 24 entry beginning next season as Gordon steps aside to begin a career outside the car that will include a stint in the broadcast booth with FOX Sports. "How old is Jeff, 50?" fellow driver Clint Bowyer quipped earlier this week during a break in testing at Kansas Speedway . "It seems like he ought to be 60 as long as he's been in this sport. "When you think about the bruisers, the tough guys of this sport, Ricky Rudd was always that guy, you know? For Jeff to be in it as long as he has, and to stay safe as long as he has, it says a lot about the cars he is driving, the people that are working on those cars, the safety innovations in this sport; that's the reason that you can do those things and he can continue to do it at the age he’s doing it. Stay sharp and on top of his game like he has." RELATED: Rudd and other drivers who have raced injured Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson , Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports , couldn't resist a playful dig when asked about Gordon's record-equaling accomplishment. "He's old," Johnson said with a laugh. "I can't believe it. It's amazing how fast the time goes. I'm sure Jeff would say the same." When Johnson moved into Cup fulltime in '02, Gordon was coming off his fourth championship and was already a winner of 58 races. "It's crazy to think that in 270-some races (before '02) … I can't believe what he had accomplished in that window of time," Johnson said. "He's had an amazing career and I hate to see him go. I wish he was still going to be around but I know he's fired up about for what's next in life. He's been doing it a long time. "The success he's had, and especially right off the bat, is really impressive." Rudd's streak began Jan. 1, 1981 at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway with a DiGard team owned by Bill Gardner. It didn't end until Sept. 20, 2005 at Homestead-Miami Speedway while paired with Wood Brothers Racing . Rudd , Gordon and Bobby Labonte (704) are the only drivers with more than 700 consecutive starts. Matt Kenseth , with 538 consecutive starts, is next in line among those drivers still competing fulltime in the series. "I look at Ricky Rudd , what he went through to make it is pretty extraordinary so I can't quite compare to that, but I've been in this sport a long time," Gordon said. "I've been in every single race and that is definitely a stat that I will look back on and be very proud of when we accomplish that at New Hampshire." There were times, he said, when the possibility of missing a race existed, but they were few and far between, due to health concerns rather than performance-based issues. One that quickly comes to mind, he said, was a blown right-front tire at Texas Motor Speedway in 1999 that sent Gordon's Chevrolet hard into the outside wall and left the driver with a rib injury. "No SAFER barrier, no HANS device, seats were not what they are today, seat belts were not what they are today," Gordon said. "That could have been a very serious injury. It ended up being bruised ribs and I was hurting but we had a weekend off so I was able to recover enough to go to Bristol the next race." "Of course the back issue that I had last year at Charlotte -- I wasn't prepared for that. When I got back in the car on Saturday and it hurt as bad as it did, I was scared that I might not make it into that race … the next day. "Luckily I had some great doctors that got me through it, we did the injections and I was able to make it through that race." Week after week, year after year, Gordon has continued to show up, suit up and race as hard as he did that first Sunday at Atlanta more than two decades ago. "What are mine?" Bowyer asked of his own number of consecutive starts. Told 351, Bowyer seemed stunned. "Three fifty one to 787? Whoa! I'll be 60 (by then)," he said. "No, it really is a hell of an accomplishment; what a career and he’s done a lot for our sport and everybody involved in it. It really is crazy to think next year there will not be a Jeff Gordon (on the track)." No other full-time driver competing today was also in the field that day in Atlanta. So Bowyer not only spoke for himself but for the other 41 drivers in today's race. "He's been in every single ( Sprint Cup ) race that I've ever been a part of."
Rudd reflects on NASCAR career, time spent with Childress
Ricky Rudd was a youngster in NASCAR at a time when the term described anyone under 30 that drove around in used equipment and hoped someone noticed their talent before the wheels fell off. Richard Childress was a 36-year-old independent, an owner/driver with a potential sponsor that wasn't interested in 36-year-old owner/drivers, independent or otherwise. Brought together by nothing more than necessity -- Rudd needed a ride and Childress needed a driver -- the pair spent just two years together. But in two years' time, a stellar driving career and a legendary ownership role were launched. "Even today I can't thank Ricky enough for what he did for RCR," Childress said recently during an unveiling of throwback paint schemes to be run by two of his organization's three cars later this year in the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway . "Those were the breaking points that we needed to get both of our careers jump-started. I think it was a great time for both of us." Austin Dillon , grandson of the team owner, will drive a No. 3 Chevrolet bearing the likeness of Rudd's No. 3 Piedmont Airlines entry at Darlington. "I'd been talking to Piedmont prior to that," Childress said of the 1982 sponsorship agreement. "Even talked to them back when Dale (Earnhardt) was running … races (for us). "They said, 'We're an up-and-coming airline, we want an up and coming driver.' I said, 'Well I know exactly the person.' I convinced Ricky to run for us. We didn't even have it done when he came over to drive for us." Childress had gone the independent route for roughly a dozen years, earning 76 top-10 finishes but never a victory in 285 career starts as a driver. Rudd had begun to climb the racing ladder, but saw his career stall at the end of '81 when he was replaced at DiGard Racing by veteran Bobby Allison. "About that time I got a call from Richard," Rudd said. "He said, 'Hey, nothing concrete but I've got some good equipment that I'm going to Daytona with, would you be willing to drive our car?' That's how it started. "That phone call didn't take place until late December, maybe early January. ... I didn't have anything going that was better than what Richard had to offer. I went to the car that I thought gave me the best chance to win races. Even though the prior half season Dale Earnhardt was driving the car and everyone knows Earnhardt's capabilities but they never really performed that well. There were reasons for that, but Richard was in a major rebuild during that time." Earnhardt drove for Richard Childress Racing for the final 11 races of '81, but departed to spend the next two years with Bud Moore where he won three times. Meanwhile, the RCR organization was beginning to make strides. "Before we went to Daytona, things had started happening. Piedmont Airlines had stepped on board as a sponsor. Goodyear came on board and helped us out with some tires ... there were a lot of people that got on board and liked what they saw," Rudd said. "The team just continued to snowball in the right direction after I was asked to join it, not because of me, but the timing was perfect for me as a driver and was perfect for Richard as an owner, through all the hard work and people he had. It came together and worked." Rudd and Childress went winless in their first season together, but the driver did finish ninth in points. The following year, Rudd began the season with three consecutive poles -- at Daytona, Richmond, Virigina, and Rockingham, North Carolina -- career win No. 1, for Rudd and for Childress, came in the season's 13th race, at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway. Rudd led 57 laps of the 95-lap race, including the final 41. The victory came in his 161st start in the series. "It gave every one of us confidence," Childress said. "It gave him confidence to progress in the sport, gave us confidence that we could win as a team and as a company and we just had to keep digging." "It wasn't a road-race car," Will Lind, now Business Director of Competition for RCR, said. "It was our Martinsville car with the gas hole moved and the oil cooler for the transmission. The only thing specialized about it was him ( Rudd )." Afterward, as Childress and crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine began the long trek back to the Carolinas, the team owner said he pulled off on the side of the road. "Kirk and I looked at each other and Kirk said, 'You know what we just did?' "I said, 'Yeah, we won.' " "He said, 'No, you won right outside of LA, with all the big sports going on ... we just won a major race here in Riverside, California.' " Rudd won once more that season, at Martinsville Speedway , and again finished ninth in points. The following season, he moved on to join Bud Moore Engineering; Earnhardt, meanwhile returned to RCR where he went on to win six premier series titles for the former owner/driver. Rudd retired from driving after the 2007 season, with 23 career wins and 374 top-10 finishes in 906 starts. He finished fifth or better in points five times, including second in 1991. He is one of five new nominees on this year's 20-person ballot to be considered for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame for 2017. The NASCAR Hall of Fame Voting Panel will meet Wed., May 25 to decide next year's five-member class. "It's an exciting time for me," Rudd said. "It would be great if I make it but there are some guys that are probably better qualified than me. I'd love to be elected this year but hopefully that day will come. At least I'm in the pool anyway; you've got to get in the pool before you can be elected. We'll see how it turns out. But there are some guys that deserve to be in there before I do." It is Childress' eighth year on the Hall of Fame ballot. In addition to six premier series titles and 105 victories, RCR teams have also XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series titles. "You could tell early on that there was something special about it," Rudd said of the organization. "Richard was more than just being a car owner ... it was family. They live, eat, sleep and breathe racing. ... "At the time there were no victories here but as a group it all started happening. And it was just a neat time to be a part of it." MORE: Cast your NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot
RCR honors Rudd with Darlington throwbacks
Richard Childress Racing drivers Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman will be sporting paint schemes for throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway that honor the first win for RCR and Ricky Rudd . The victory came in 1983 at Riverside International Raceway.
Prolonged excellence has Childress Hall of Fame bound
RELATED: Learn more about the Class of 2017 MORE: Photos from voting day, of class Journeyman stock car racer Richard Childress caught lightning in a bottle, not once but twice. NASCAR's only driver strike, on the eve of the 1969 inaugural race at Talladega Superspeedway , gave Childress the opportunity to earn enough money to build his first race shop and lay the foundation for Richard Childress Racing , the powerhouse Chevrolet organization which to date has claimed 11 owner titles across NASCAR’s three national series. Nearly a decade later, the Winston-Salem, North Carolina native met Dale Earnhardt. Together, the pair won six NASCAR premier series championships along with 67 races between 1984 and 2000. Earnhardt entered the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of its 2010 inaugural class. Childress will be enshrined in the hall on Jan. 20 in Charlotte, N.C. (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), along with Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin, Raymond Parks and Benny Parsons. Childress, 71, grew up selling peanuts and popcorn at Winston-Salem's legendary Bowman Gray Stadium. Soon after, he bought a 1947 Plymouth for $20. "That's where it started," he said in a Grainger.com interview. "It's the best investment I ever made." Top drivers – those with factory contracts – made a decent living while independents like Childress barely scraped by. He went to Talladega in the fall of 1969 to compete in a preliminary event but was asked by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. to enter the Talladega 500 when Professional Driver Association members withdrew, citing high speeds and tire failures. "I had made three or four thousand dollars on Saturday," Childress told The Birmingham News in 2009. "The money that (France) paid us to run – we called it deal money in those days – plus my winnings, I came back with seven, eight, 10 thousand dollars. In those days it was big money. "It was my big break. Life’s all about the breaks and when you take advantage of them. That was the difference between making it and not making it." Childress never won a race as a driver but was able to secure enough sponsorship to keep going. His equipment generally was immaculate and pleased supporters, who ultimately would provide much greater – and crucial – financial backing. Earnhardt, who'd won his first championship in 1980, chose not to accompany Rod Osterlund's team upon its sale to J.D. Stacy. He joined Childress for 11 races, replacing the owner in the driver's seat. "I didn't want to get out of the car but I knew the opportunity was there – and I didn't want to pass it up," Childress told Foxnews.com last year. "I knew Dale was a championship driver. That was one of the biggest breaks in the history of RCR and Richard Childress. "I was maxxed out. I did everything I could do on my home. I sold everything I thought I had that I could sell just to run Dale in those (11) races." Earnhardt left to race for Bud Moore, and Childress – thanks to a bail-out from primary sponsor Wrangler Jeans – was able to continue. With Ricky Rudd , RCR scored its first victory in June 1983 at Riverside International Raceway. Earnhardt returned to RCR the following season, capturing the team’s first premier series title in 1986. Additional championships followed in 1987, 1990-91 and 1993-94. Longtime racing executive and Charlotte Motor Speedway promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler credited Childress for molding Earnhardt into one of NASCAR's greatest drivers. "In his own, quiet Southern way, Richard instilled in Dale all he knew," Wheeler wrote in "Growing Up NASCAR." "Richard knew what to say and when to say it and he knew how to get the best out of his driver. Richard was a brilliant, brilliant coach, something most drivers never get." Earnhardt and Childress finally won the long-elusive Daytona 500 in 1998, three years before the driver's death on the final lap of the "Great American Race." Childress considered leaving the sport – "Probably all the way up until Tuesday. Sunday night, definitely," he said – but recalled a hunting incident after which he and Earnhardt agreed each would go on if something happened to the other. RCR promoted its NASCAR XFINITY Series driver Kevin Harvick to drive its Chevrolets – retiring the iconic No. 3 in deference to the late Intimidator. Childress returned the number to its cars several years ago when his grandson, Austin Dillon , moved to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after winning NASCAR Camping World Truck and XFINITY titles. To date, RCR has won 105 NASCAR premier series races. The organization counts four XFINITY owner titles and the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series owner championship in 1995 with Mike Skinner. RCR also captured the XFINITY Series driver championship in 2013 and the Camping World Truck Series driver title in 2011, both with Austin Dillon . Childress, recipient of the 1986 Bill France Award of Excellence, is a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, International Motorsports Hall of Fame and North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. &amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
From The Vault: Gordon edges Rudd in Michigan
Relive Jeff Gordon’s 55th career victory that came in 2001 at Michigan International Speedway. Gordon would hold off a hard-charging Ricky Rudd to earn Hendrick Motorsports its 100th win in NASCAR’s top series.
Nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame
NASCAR Hall of Fame: Ricky Rudd
See how one of the toughest men of iron in NASCAR earned his right to be considered for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The Rundown: Phoenix driver grades
RELATED: Full race results " Series standings " Chase Grid Breaking down the full field for the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway: 1. Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford, Team Penske. How's this for irony? The guy who won the race -- in overtime no less -- almost didn't make it past Lap 1. Grade: A+ 2. Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch said it was an "ugly race for us" and "we ran pretty bad all day." Perhaps. But he has a shot at the championship, and teammate Matt Kenseth, who had the exact opposite day of Busch, doesn't. Unfortunate for Kenseth, but that's racin'. Grade: A 3. Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing. It was Larson who almost took out Joey Logano -- and himself -- on the first lap when he got loose in Turn 3, drifted into Logano (causing a tire rub on the No. 22) and then went for a spin through traffic. But that wasn't Larson's only adventure. He was involved in the second caution when he got hit from behind by Ryan Newman as both were entering pit road. Quite a day. And quite a finish. Grade: A 4. Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Early problems with the car's handling were too much to overcome, and for the first time since the current Chase format went into effect, Harvick will not be driving for a championship at Homestead. Grade: A- 5. Kurt Busch, No. 41 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Busch caught some breaks and tied a career high with his 21st top 10 of the season, but only a win would have kept him alive in the Chase. Grade: A 6. Alex Bowman, No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Bowman led a race-high 194 laps and was the car to beat all afternoon. He was strong enough to win or at least finish second. He looked so good behind the wheel, you would have thought Dale Earnhardt Jr. was inside the No. 88, not a guy without a ride for 2017. Grade: A++ 7. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin's team rolled the dice when he didn't pit after the sixth caution and restarted with the lead on Lap 262. The move didn't work, but playing it safe likely wouldn't have, either. Grade: A 8. Ryan Blaney, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers Racing. With all the focus on the Chase drivers and Alex Bowman, Blaney drove under the radar to his ninth top 10 of the season. The last time Wood Brothers Racing had nine top 10s in a season was 2005 with Ricky Rudd . Grade: A 9. Chase Elliott, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Elliott posts back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time in more than two months. Grade: A 10. Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. Menard's third top 10 of 2016 was RCR's 26th of the season, one more than last season. Grade: A 11. Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing. McMurray finished in the top 15 at Phoenix for the sixth consecutive race (11.3 average finish). Grade: B 12. Ryan Newman, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. For a guy who was instrumental in two cautions -- running into Kyle Larson and later Martin Truex Jr. -- Newman posted a dang good finish. Can't say the same for Truex, though. Grade: C+ 13. Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. The overtimes cost Kahne a top-10 finish. Grade: B 14. Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford, Team Penske. Keselowski's 29th- and 14th-place finishes at Phoenix this year were his worst combined performance at the track since he finished 16th and 42nd in 2010, his first full season racing for Roger Penske. Grade: B 15. Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart is not making a lot of noise as he heads off into retirement. His finish Sunday was only his third-best in the past 13 races. Grade: B- 16. Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. The driver of the No. 16 finished 16th in his 500th consecutive Sprint Cup start. Sweet. Grade: B- 17. AJ Allmendinger, No. 47 Chevrolet, JTG Daugherty Racing. Score one for consistency: Allmendinger finished 17th for the second straight race at Phoenix and for third time in his past four starts at the track. (And for good measure, AJ finished 17th last week, too.) Grade: B- 18. Casey Mears, No. 13 Chevrolet, Germain Racing. Mears posted his best finish since running 12th at Watkins Glen in August. Grade: B 19. Carl Edwards, No. 19 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards qualified for a shot at the championship with his win last week at Texas and was not a factor Sunday. Grade: B- 20. Landon Cassill, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. Cassill's seventh top-20 finish in 2016 is equal to his top 20s in his previous three seasons combined. Grade: A 21. Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth went from race leader to out of the Chase in a flash when he thought he was clear after the first overtime restart but wasn't and went spinning after pinching down on Alex Bowman. The focus quickly went to Kenseth's spotter, Chris Osborne, who later tweeted his apologies to all of Kenseth's fans "for ending our Chase hopes," adding "this one's on me." Maybe, maybe not. It's not as if Osborne had all day to make the call. As Ferris Bueller once said, "Life moves pretty fast." Grade: B 22. Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports. Sunday's finish ended Almirola's run of nine consecutive top-20 finishes at Phoenix. Grade: C 23. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. An untimely caution after a green-flag pit stop put Stenhouse in a hole he couldn't climb out of. Grade: C 24. Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Chevrolet, HScott Motorsports. Bowyer's 12th top-25 finish of the second half of the season equaled his number in the first 18 races of the season. Grade: C 25. Matt DiBenedetto, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing. DiBenedetto finished in the top 25 for the sixth time this season, including for the third time in his past five starts. Grade: B 26. Michael Annett, No. 46 Chevrolet, HScott Motorsports. Annett equaled his third-best finish of the season (26th at Kentucky in July). Grade: B- 27. Regan Smith, No. 7 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. Looking for progress? Smith finished in the top 30 for the 12th time in the second half of the season Sunday, compared with eight top 30s in the first half. And he did it in three fewer starts. Grade: C 28. Trevor Bayne, No. 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. Bayne went for a slide on the first lap when Kyle Larson spun out, and later was a victim of bad timing on a caution after he had pit under green. Grade: C- 29. Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Patrick endured her fourth-worst finish of the season Sunday. She finished 19th at Phoenix in March. Grade: D 30. Brian Scott, No. 44 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports. Three days after announcing he would retire after the season, Scott finished five laps off the pace Sunday. Grade: D 31. David Ragan, No. 23 Toyota, BK Racing. Ragan had his worst finish at Phoenix in three years. Grade: D 32. Chris Buescher, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. The onetime Chaser posted his worst finish of the nine Chase races. Grade: D 33. Jeffrey Earnhardt, No. 32 Ford, GO FAS Racing. Earnhardt finished six laps back in his first Sprint Cup start at Phoenix. Grade: D 34. Michael McDowell, No. 95 Chevrolet, Circle Sport-Leavine Family. McDowell changed the course of the race -- and the Chase -- when he blew a tire with one lap left in regulation, hit the wall and brought out the eighth caution. Grade: D 35. D.J. Kennington, No. 55 Chevrolet, Premium Motorsports. Kennington made his first Cup start, and if he never starts another race, he'll be guaranteed to be able to tell his grandchildren that for all of Jimmie Johnson's accomplishments in NASCAR, Six-Time (or, perhaps, Seven-Time) never beat him on the track. Grade: D- 36. Reed Sorenson, No. 98 Chevrolet, Premium Motorsports. Sorenson finished nine laps back. Grade: F 37. Gray Gaulding, No. 30 Chevrolet, The Motorsports Group. A fuel pump problem spoiled Gaulding's second Sprint Cup start. Grade: F 38. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson went to pit road as the leader during the fourth caution, but he passed the pace car on pit road and was penalized and that led to the unraveling of his day. On the subsequent restart, he suffered heavy damage to the nose of his car when he ran into the back of Greg Biffle, who had checked up when Austin Dillon's car lost power. Not the best way to go into Homestead racing for a championship, but if anything, absorbing that penalty Sunday pretty much guarantees if Johnson is in a similar situation next Sunday, he won't make the same mistake. Better this week than next week. Grade: F 39. Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. On a restart on Lap 218, a part failed and shut off Dillon's engine. Dillon eventually returned to the track, but he left Phoenix with his worst finish of the season. Grade: F 40. Martin Truex Jr., No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing. If you Google "How do you finish last in a Sprint Cup race?" this might be one of the results: Roll off the starting grid 40th. Be on pit road under green when there's a caution. Be penalized for passing the pace car on pit road. Race too close to Ryan Newman. Grade: F
Dale Earnhardt-Wrangler deal risky, but paid off big for Richard Childress
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Richard Childress went all in. He wagered everything -- his yesterday, his today and his tomorrow. He bet it on a late-season deal with a driver who was a maverick, and he bet it on nothing more than a sliver of a sponsorship. And at the end of that 1981 season, less than a dozen races after the relationships began, the driver and the sponsor departed. The story could have ended there. Driver gone, sponsor gone and Childress, who had tried to scratch out a living as a racer before going the ownership route, hopelessly broke and perhaps finished with NASCAR. But it didn't. Two years later, both Dale Earnhardt and Wrangler reunited with Childress. The union produced a pair of championships and a slew of wins, and set Childress and Earnhardt on a path of success rarely seen in NASCAR. "I borrowed everything I could on my home; I sold everything I had that I thought I could sell just to run Dale those 10 races," Childress said Wednesday during a celebration at Wrangler's headquarters here in Greensboro. "At the end of it, I was just in debt. I had borrowed money from some folks and everything just to run those 10 races." It's fitting that the celebration of the region's textile community, dubbed Jeansboro Day, took place this week, just as NASCAR's premier series prepares to return to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend. Because it was at Talladega in the summer of '81 that all the pieces first came together that would unite Childress, Earnhardt and Wrangler. "I had already talked to Dale at the track earlier that day," Childress said, "and put our deal together." Later, at the long-gone Anniston Inn just east of the track, he met with Phil Holmer of Goodyear, Wrangler officials and Joe Whitlock, who handled Earnhardt's public relations at the time. Earnhardt had won the 1980 title while driving for team owner Rod Osterlund, but when the team was sold mid-season to J.D. Stacy in '81, the driver wanted out. A deal to run the final 11 races of the season was struck, with Childress and Wrangler. By year's end, Earnhardt had managed six top-10 finishes, but the strong runs were offset by mechanical issues and parts breakage. "We ran good, but I knew we didn't have what it took to run him for a championship," Childress said. Dale Earnhardt talks with Richard Childress after the two reunited in 1984. Dale Earnhardt Jr . remembers that season, in particular his father's second start with Childress. "I remember the race at Bristol where you had the accident on pit road that second race that dad drove for you in 1981," Earnhardt Jr. said Wednesday. "I was there. I know that because one of my most favorite photos of me and my father, they basically had these two tires stacked on top of each other and I'm standing in the wheel to get a better perspective to watch the race. I must have been 7 years old. "But Dad is standing with me and we're both watching the rest of the race; the car is in the background too damaged to continue. But my favorite photo of me and my father actually happened that day at Bristol." At the suggestion of Childress, Earnhardt left at the end of the year, taking the Wrangler funding with him to sign with veteran team owner Bud Moore. Childress hired driver Ricky Rudd , and a late deal put Piedmont Airlines on the car and helped stabilize the organization. Wrangler officials, knowing his dire financial situation, had kicked in an extra $50,000 at year's end to help Childress keep his operation upright. "That really helped me going into the following year," Childress said. What would have he done without it? "It's hard to say," he said. "I never look back. I just look ahead and that was one of those deals that helped me look ahead. I don't know where we would have been without it." Before the '84 season began, Childress said Wrangler officials wanted to reunite, with Earnhardt once again driving the No. 3 Chevrolet. The Earnhardt/Moore union had produced just three wins over the course of two years. Childress was more than willing to agree. "I'll never forget Bud told me at Riverside, 'Boy, that boy will break you,'" Childress recalled Moore telling him of Earnhardt. Instead, the pair flourished. A Legacy Continues In 2010, Earnhardt brought the brand back to the race track for a one-off race, winning the XFINITY Series event that summer at Daytona International Speedway . The car, prepared by his own JR Motorsports group, sported the No. 3 and a paint scheme similar to his father's. He continues to serve as a spokesperson for the company, and says it is "amazing" that the relationship has endured for so long. "My father first had Wrangler on the side of his car at the end of the 1980 season; he won the championship with Wrangler on the quarter panel of his car racing at Ontario in 1980 for the final race of the season," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Then he went into 1981 with Wrangler as a full-time sponsor. And we're still working together today. "I'm very proud of that relationship, very proud that it spanned so many years. Typically, relationships just don't last that long. So it says a lot about Wrangler and what they get out of the sport itself; their connection to race fans and the legacy of the Earnhardt family and Richard, everything that Richard and Dad did together."