Richard Childress, principal owner of the Richard Childress Racing NASCAR operation, is a man who operates on his own frequency. A man so equally charismatic and polarizing that nearly every Hollywood production of a stock car racing film involves a character borrowing qualities from his one-of-a-kind personality. Self made, larger than life, a gun nut even by NASCAR standards, Childress is a caricature of the NASCAR personification before even considering his famous business in Welcome, North Carolina.
In recent years the RCR team has remained fairly competitive on a grand scale, but was certainly still feeling the effects of the post Kevin Harvick reality, and long in the shadow from Dale Earnhardt’s reign as the face of NASCAR. The 2022 season has brought new fortune to the team, with three Cup wins as of this writing, and a genuine championship contender in Tyler Reddick. Moreover, with the official announcement of Kyle Busch’s entrance to the team, RCR is on the lips of the collective NASCAR community more than we’ve seen in many years. The trials and tribulations of the RCR team, its most famous players, and Richard himself have yielded a lot of…..emotional comments from the younger set of the NASCAR community. Some of the concerns are valid, but I can’t help but think a lot of fans newer to the sport don’t quite understand the man at the helm of this famous race team. Let’s try to correct that.
I’ll say up front that this article will NOT be encyclopedic, and much of this information will be anecdotal. Richard Childress can’t be contained to a mere blog article, but I’m going to try my best to set the framework for why we can’t expect anything “typical” from this NASCAR lifer. A good enough place to start, is at the beginning.
Richard Childress’ start in NASCAR as a driver is just as unique as the rest of his life. After a driver’s strike at the newly built Talladega Superspeedway due to tire concerns, Childress was among the many sportsman drivers brought up to fill the field, which would eventually build to a career of 285 NASCAR races driven over the course of 12 seasons. While never winning a race as a driver, his operation grew and he began hiring talent to work on and then drive his car. Just as major players in NASCAR brought him into the grand national racing world, major players (in this case series sponsor R.J. Reynolds) helped orchestrate the move to get him to a role of pure team owner.
While we think of Richard Childress as the “Dale Earnhardt car owner” before we think of anything else, there are considerations to the other drivers he’s employed when thinking about his career in total. While the Childress/Earnhardt partnership was what’s most celebrated, the pairing only lasted one season on the first go round. Ricky Rudd drove the Childress 3 for two seasons and proved that Childress could be a race winner. Once Earnhardt and Childress reunited, things clicked and took off into the stratosphere. We romanticize the pairing as inseparable and as well fitted together as a business partnership could be, but there were shaky contract negotiations right up until just before the tragic end of Earnhardt’s life.
It’s amazing to think about, but Matt Kenseth could have ended up as the driver of the GM Goodwrench Number 3 had the final contract signed by Earnhardt in 2000 not come to pass. While highly unlikely in the grand scheme of things, it’s just one instance that shows the number 3 was never really Dale Earnhardt’s number in perpetuity, a fact that’s been understandably lost to most of the shared history of NASCAR.
One of the biggest sources of contempt to the Kyle Busch news is the notion that Kyle should have been issued, or outright deserves the number 3 on his 2023 car. As far as a measure of skill and accomplishment, there’s no argument against it, but the number has never been considered Richard’s to give outside his own family. Perhaps more important, it’s never even been seen as a mark of talent or skill, despite the amount of success it’s obviously had.
For better or worse, Childress kept the number out of NASCAR for over a decade, while still paying to keep the number in reserve and withholding it only for who he called “the right driver,” which happened to be his grandson. I don’t attempt to explain this to prove anyone right or wrong, but it hopefully will prove that this number isn’t a mark of financial marketability or even as a mark of talent. It goes so deep into who Childress is as a racer and business person that it practically defies understanding, and we have to go back decades to even try.
The number 3 was a famous number in NASCAR long before Dale Earnhardt…long before Richard Childress for that matter. At its core, and while not the only number associated with his greatness, Junior Johnson is a tipping point for the number 3 in the roots of NASCAR’s history. The Midnight Moonshiner was one of the best drivers Childress could have ever seen while working as a peanut vendor at Bowman Gray Stadium, working there as a teenager to make ends meet for his family. As a struggling driver in NASCAR, Junior Johnson aided Childress’ efforts, keeping him in races he may not have been able to enter otherwise. Johnson, now a titan in the sport, had a partnership to develop experimental car parts, and gave Childress some desperately needed support to use them. There’s no telling what may or may not have happened in the vast history of pluses and minuses across decades of the sport, but it’s not unwise to think that perhaps without Junior Johnson, there would never have been a Richard Childress in the way we know him today. This brand of old school loyalty that came from small time sponsors to drivers and team members carries him to this day and may have a lot to say for the unique circumstances of 2022 silly season free agency.
The other undoubtedly understood bone of contention with RCR’s silly season is to the treatment of Tyler Reddick. The young Reddick has greatly improved RCR’s standing in the sport, winning 2 Cup races so far and a few more that could easily have gone his way in reserve. While expected to be a hot ticket free agent in 2024 most observers to NASCAR probably didn’t expect much news regarding Reddick’s future until some time in the 2023 season. His performance alone all but assured RCR would pick up the team option for ‘23, and they did just that. However, with a timing that could not have been worse for those in the RCR camp, 23XI racing announced they would be fielding a car for Reddick starting in 2024.
Business is tough, and NASCAR business can look really personal at moments like this. I can’t make a claim to know what Richard Childress or anyone else was thinking here, but I can suspect that loyalty and a sense of at least waiting to 2023 to negotiate were expected from ownership on this issue.
Sponsorships in NASCAR are a fickle thing, and as such driver contracts are often negotiated and signed in the final year of a deal. 23XI, the new but popular Toyota team part owned by Michael Jordan, buoyed with strong sponsorship seemingly for years, was able to make Tyler Reddick an offer most teams couldn’t. 23XI took their shot with impressive precision, and it worked.
For better or worse Richard Childress, as a man, looked wounded, especially after Reddick won his second race of the season at Indianapolis. I can’t help but think there was some manner of loyalty that Childress expected but never received. After all, they picked up Reddick’s option pretty early into 2022, and was probably considered a safe bet to get first crack at negotiations for 2024. Maybe he took it personally, maybe the stars simply aligned the right way, but Childress got his retribution by signing Kyle Busch, and as it stands now, still gets another season’s worth of Reddick’s talent in the process.
As of this writing it remains to be seen just what vehicle will be supplied to Reddick for 2023, but Childress himself has at the very least stated that it’s to be a “3rd charter” for the RCR team and that Reddick will remain under contract with Kyle Busch driving the 8 car. The finances of NASCAR may prevent it from working out exactly as he stated, but for Childress to sign Kyle Busch, the driver he most compared to the late Dale Earnhardt as a free agent while STILL getting to hate-f**k through the contract of a future leader of the sport is something only a character like Richard Childress could pull off.
There still exists the chance that RCR could win a championship with a driver he scorns in 2022, and win again with a driver he never should have had the chance to employ in 2023. There would be nothing more Richard Childress than to somehow pull that off, and I’m more than ready to personally hold his watch in order to see it happen.
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