VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — For years, I’ve been calling the owners of the multiple Sprint Cup race teams, “The Millionaires Club.” Most of them made their fortunes before they got into racing. One exception is Richard Childress.
Childress was a longtime independant owner-driver in NASCAR’s senior division. He got talked into racing at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in 1969 after most of the big name drivers and teams boycotted the race. He had six top five and 76 top-10 finishes. His best was a third in 1978. Childress gave up driving in 1981.
Always running a No. 3 because his idol Junior Johnson used that number, Childress discovered Dale Earnhardt, who was NASCAR champion as a sophomore in 1980, had lost his ride when his owner sold out.
Earnhardt took over the No. 3, but only managed a best finish of seventh. He told Dale to give him some time to put together a better team. Dale drove Fords for Bud Moore in 1983-84 while Ricky Rudd took over the Childress Chevy.
Childress did indeed improve the team. Rudd won the pole for the Daytona 500 and he won on the road course at Riverside, Calif., for Childress’ first vicotry.
In 1985, the two drivers switched rides, both sponsored by Wrangler.
In 1986, Earnhardt gave Childress his first championship. Things got even better in 1987, Wrangler got out of racing and Goodwrench became the sponsor of No. 3. This meant a black paint job. Bad guys tend to wear black hats, so it fit and Dale was being called The Intimidator. They won the title again.
In the ’90s, Earnhardt won four more crowns. All six of his titles with Childress came in bunches, winning two in a row three times. The Goodwrench backing was lucrative and put Childress closer to his manufacturer, Chevrolet. They had their worst year in 1992. It was said the use of radial tires hurt Earnhardt’s driving style. Between the four titles they won in the ’90s came other bad years plus the presence of a new rival for Earnhardt, Jeff
In 1995, Childress branched out. He was a pioneer owner with the new Truck series started by NASCAR. Mike Skinner was champion that first year. He then started running in the Busch (now Nationwide) division using it to develop new drivers.
Earnhardt had tough going in the latter part of the decade. Two serious accidents seemed to slow him down and he had a long losing streak. That was all forgotten in 1998 when Dale finally won the Daytona 500.
By then Childress had three different crew chiefs for No. 3. Soon it would be four. Everybody else stuck with him. Childress has one of the most loyal staffs in racing. He put together a second Cup team with Skinner at the helm.
2000 seemed like a great year. Earnhardt made a run at chasing Bobby Labonte for the championship. The fall race at Atlanta was spectacular.
Earnhardt came from 18th with four laps to go to score a stunning victory.
Dale was in great health. He had started a two-car Cup team and his son Dale, Jr. won on the circuit as a rookie. Dale seemed in a good place when the 2001 season started. Then the unthinkable happened. Dale died in the Daytona 500.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time, being the first race of the season.
Childress and his team were devastated. It had been 20 years ago when Dale first drove for him.
There was little time to grief. Sponsor deals had to be kept. Childress put his Busch driver in Earnhardt’s car. No. 3 was gone. The car was now a white No. 29. Kevin Harvick, a driver scouted by Earnhardt got the ride.
In only his third start, Harvick beat Jeff Gordon by inches at Atlanta to get one of the most emotional wins in NASCAR history.
Harvick was a coming star. Childress tried other drivers but none of them worked out in his second car. When Jack Roush cashiered Jeff Burton, Childress signed him, but it took awhile for that combo to contend.
Childress had built up a nice portfolio, impressive for a guy who was an independent owner/driver at one time.
He became an avid hunter, going on safari to Africa and a vintner, too. He opened wineries in his native North Carolina. He won a Nationwide title as an owner. He owned three, sometimes four Cup teams and often ran three cars in Nationwide.
Harvick gave him his second Daytona 500 win. He hired a new driver, unknown to most named Clint Bowyer who has come into his own as a solid Cup driver.
Two years ago, the four Childress teams had a miserable first half of the season and none made NASCAR’s Chase. Harvick was up for contract renewal and Childress was facing the loss of his No. 1 driver. RCR used the Chase to retool and all four cars turned it around and they were near the top again.
After losing sponsorship on one car and dropping to three cars last year, Paul Menard with his father’s backing joined the team this year. He has done very well and a win would not be a surprise.
Keeping up his legacy, Childress’ two young grandsons — Austin and Ty Dillon — are racing in the Truck series and ARCA. Both have won already. Richard shakes his head thinking of the money he’s spending.
Harvick is the only Cup driver to win back-to-back races this year. Many think he’s the one who will break Jimmie Johnson’s five-year stronghold on the championship.
At 65 years old, Richard Childress has accomplished a lot. Some think he might add an Indy team next year. He has done it all with a quiet dignity and has the respect of the entire racing fraternity. Not bad for a guy who used to struggle from race to race.
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