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Almirola's dreamy Speedweeks continues Friday

February 24, 2012, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Aric Almirola's dreamlike first Speedweeks with Richard Petty Motorsports continued Friday at Daytona International Speedway on a day in which nearly a third of the Daytona 500 field sat idle.

Only 31 of the 43 cars qualified for Sunday's Great American Race ran in either of Friday's two one-hour practice sessions and Almirola continued to impress.

"Our car has got so much speed in it, we're just really fine-tuning on it and just making minor adjustments here and there, just to kind of get an idea what we can change during the race if we run into an issue."

--ARIC ALMIROLA

In the opening session, only 16 cars practiced. Almirola ran 10 laps early and was atop the chart. But late in the practice, pole-sitter Carl Edwards waited on pit road to set up a two-car draft with Almirola and their tandem resulted in the fastest laps of the session.

Edwards was clocked at 198.671 mph while Almirola was a tick behind at 198.667. After the afternoon session, in which Almirola's was one of 20 cars that didn't run, he explained the confidence instilled by a car that's averaged an eighth place in the five practices it's run so far this week.

The icing on the cake for Almirola was the fact that both sides of his No. 43 Ford were significantly rumpled in Thursday's first Gatorade Duel qualifying race. He finished 15th after serving as the meat in a sandwich between Jamie McMurray and Danica Patrick on the last lap while they were racing in the top 10.

"The car drafts just fine," Almirola said Friday. "I'll tell you what, [crew chief] Greg Erwin and all the guys on this 43 team -- they've got our Smithfield Ford running really good. I'm happy with the way the car drives and the way it drafts.

"Doug Yates did an awesome job with our engines. Our car's really fast and a lot of that is a testament to our engines, so Doug Yates gets a lot of credit for that. But our guys at the shop that prepare these cars put a lot of time in over the winter, to make them right. I'm really proud of Richard Petty Motorsports."

Almirola is preparing for his RPM debut and only his 36th career Sprint Cup start. He said his team put in a little overtime to get their car ready for the home stretch of Friday's two practices, Saturday's 90-minute Happy Hour and then Sunday's 54th annual Daytona 500.

"We had some damage where McMurray had come down and got into our right front fender a little bit," Almirola said. "And then we had some damage on our left-side door and quarter panel where we got into Danica. So we had some minor damage there -- it wasn't too terrible.

"The body guys come over and worked on it until [NASCAR officials] run them out of the garage [Thursday] night and then they put some finishing touches on it [Friday] morning. They changed the motor and got everything back, ready to go."

What Almirola and his crew did appears to be typical of the preparation for Sunday's big show. No one wants to run too many laps after they make the one allowed engine change following the qualifying races.

Juan Montoya ran the most practice laps Friday -- 41 -- but he was breaking-in a backup car. No one else ran more than 29 laps. Patrick made 18 laps in her backup car and Paul Menard, who was involved the same accident as Montoya in the first Duel, turned four in his backup car.

Almirola said his reality during Speedweeks has equaled or exceeded his expectations.

"The reality has been great," Almirola said. "We qualified 13th and the Duel was our worst result and we'd ran in the top seven for probably 55 of the 60 laps. We had a really good car in the Duel and we were really happy with the way it ran.

"Greg Erwin is a super-sharp guy. He's got a lot of knowledge about these race cars and he's a really good motivator. All the guys on the team seem to respond really well to him so I'm excited and I can't wait to race Sunday."

In the second practice, within 11 minutes a draft composed of 12 or 13 cars quickly formed, including some of the best cars in the garage, driven by Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Penske Racing teammates Brad Keselowski and A.J. Allmendinger.

Kyle Busch and Joey Logano ended up tied for the fastest lap. Busch did it on his 21st of 28 laps, and Logano matched it on his 21st of 23 circuits, at an average speed of 199.88 mph.

Almirola said his team would probably run very little Saturday. There were no incidents in either Friday session.

"Really, we're just playing," Almirola said. "Our car has got so much speed in it, we're just really fine-tuning on it and just making minor adjustments here and there, just to kind of get an idea what we can change during the race if we run into an issue.

"But overall, Greg and the guys have really just been fine-tuning on it because we don't want to put a lot of laps on our motor for the Daytona 500, so we don't expect to run a lot of laps [Saturday], either."

A 90-minute Happy Hour practice is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET Saturday.