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Strong start, tough finish to 600 week for RPM

May 28, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Almirola optimistic after 16th-place finish; Ambrose bummed with DNF

In his first Coca-Cola 600, Aric Almirola experienced the thrill of leading the field to the green flag in one of NASCAR's biggest events, all of it behind the wheel of the sport's iconic No. 43 car. Staying up there once the race began, though, was another matter altogether.

After sweeping the front row in qualifying for the Memorial Day weekend staple at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the two cars of Richard Petty Motorsports endured a 600-miler than ran the emotional gamut. Almirola found some solace in a 16th-place finish, even if he wound up two laps down. Meanwhile, teammate Marcos Ambrose saw a contending car pushed to the garage area early after a right-front wheel hub burned up.

"We had some strong runs [Sunday], qualified on the front row with Marcos, so we're starting to see some positives. When you go through a year like we're going through, when you start seeing positives week-in and week-out and start building on those and can build momentum, the guys' spirits are up, that's what it's all about."

--ARIC ALMIROLA

It wasn't the dream finish many had hoped for after the No. 43 once driven by seven-time Richard Petty soared to the top of the scoring tower in qualifying on Thursday. But for RPM and in particular Almirola, it was experience that hopefully will lead to better things in the future.

"I think this is still improvement," Almirola said. "... This is still my first year running full-time in the Cup Series. It's my first-ever Coca-Cola 600. It's hard to expect to come here and just whip up on Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne and those guys. Going into the race [Sunday] I felt like we had a good car, I felt like we were capable of having a good night. We had two runs there where we got pretty loose and gave up a lot of time on the track, and with the way the race went with those long green flag runs, that was killer. But I think the guys on pit road did a great job. We'll take it. It's 16th. It's not great, but it's improvement, and that's the one thing we've been talking about and working on."

In fairness, the event featured long green-flag runs that didn't give teams as much opportunity to work on their cars, and resulted in only nine vehicles finishing on the lead lap. Almirola hung around the edge of the lead lap in around 12th place for a healthy stretch of the race, but in the end plans did not work out as hoped. The No. 43 car got loose, and then got loose again and fell a lap down. Almirola wasn't able to take a wave-around on the ensuing caution because two cars stayed out, and from there just tried to maintain position and gain experience for the next time.

"We've normally been running 23rd, so now we're running 16th, so that's improvement," he said. "If we can just keep doing that all year, and I think if we can start building a notebook, when we come back to this place, now I've got a whole race in a Cup car here under my belt. I feel like I've got a pretty good idea of what it took to run good, so I can work better in practice on getting my car better. I practiced yesterday at 10 o'clock in the morning having no idea what to expect for the race [Sunday]."

Ambrose didn't have the luxury of that consolation. The Australian was fastest in opening practice on Thursday, qualified on the front row next to his teammate, and established himself as one of the event's top contenders the first 120 miles of the race. But just past midway his car slowed dramatically on the race track, and wound up in the garage area with a burned-up left-front wheel hub. AJ Allmendinger suffered the same problem, though that was of little solace to the No. 9 team on Sunday night.

Video: Ambrose has a hub of a problem in the 600

"It's a crazy thing," said crew chief Todd Parrott, whose car made it back on the race track but wound up 32nd. "I guess a couple cars had issues burning hubs up, so we'll just have to regroup. We had a fast car and I think we had a car capable of running in the top five pretty easy [Sunday], so we'll just have to move on from here."

For Ambrose, who led 20 laps in the race Sunday, it was a crushing finish to a weekend that had began brimming with hope and promise. For Almirola, it was a hopeful stepping stone toward bigger things for both himself and an organization that has struggled for much of this season.

"When you start on the front row or the pole you know you've got a fast car, so when you know you've got a fast car you expect to run really good," he said. "Like I said, this is tough. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it, but I can't reiterate enough that we're making improvement. We see light at the end of the tunnel and that's what it's all about. I'm proud of everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports. We had some strong runs [Sunday], qualified on the front row with Marcos, so we're starting to see some positives. When you go through a year like we're going through, when you start seeing positives week-in and week-out and start building on those and can build momentum, the guys' spirits are up, that's what it's all about."

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