Almirola, Petty's plan to complete RPM's regrowth
January 29, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
Seasons of learning the ropes a thing of the past for 29-year-old
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Aric Almirola has been the face of Richard Petty Motorsports' flagship No. 43 Ford for the past two years as the organization tried to rebound from poor financial footing since Richard Petty and other investors purchased the company's racing assets in late 2010.
With low funds and dwindling sponsorship, part of the Petty plan was using the Florida native to woo sponsors. Almirola -- charming, clean-cut and reliable -- has since helped the program gain value. Chief sponsor Smithfield recently extended its agreement with the No. 43 through 2016 and increased its investment by 50 percent. On Wednesday during the Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, the team announced that U.S. Air Force will continue its backing of the No. 43 for two races -- the Memorial Day weekend event at Charlotte and the Fourth of July weekend race at Daytona.
Funds have increased, new revenue streams are flowing and Almirola himself was rewarded with a new contract that runs through 2016 after working on a pair of one-year deals since 2012.
The next step for the 29-year-old driver: Become the face of RPM for his on-track success.
"I'm more confident going into this year than I ever have been in a race car, period," Almirola said during RPM's session at the Sprint Media Tour. "Throughout most of my career I've had a lot of growing pains and … I always felt like it was more important for me to learn than it was for me to go out and be aggressive and try to race for wins. I needed to run all the laps and be consistent and learn as much as I can.
"That time's over for me. I'm showing up to the race track every week for one thing, to put the 43 back in Victory Lane. That's all I care about this year."
Almirola has a pair of top-fives and 10 top-10s in two full-time seasons with RPM. The driver rattled off four consecutive top-10s early in the 2013 season, the longest such streak of his career. He was 12th in the points standings through 13 races -- the midway point of the regular season -- but had slipped to 18th when the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field was set following the regular-season finale at Richmond.
"We started off last year really well and we faltered through the summer," Almirola said. "We're not going to falter this year."
Part of that confidence stems from the increased backing of several sponsors -- namely Smithfield -- that has enabled the organization to launch its own Research & Development department. It's a first for RPM, which previously had a partnership with Roush Fenway Racing for chassis and Roush Yates for engines.
Now there are more bodies in the building. There are more new faces, too -- employees who bring ideas from other shops and breathe fresh life into old or longstanding beliefs.
"We have an R&D team, and guys are putting their brains together to make our program better," Almirola said. "We've never really had that. We had kind of taken what we got across the street from Roush and went and raced it. We've got some new people, and I've got a new crew chief this year in Trent Owens and I feel really lucky to have him because he's gonna help us a lot."
Owens has called seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races in his career as a national series crew chief, which began in 2006. He has been atop the pit box for 247 NASCAR Nationwide Series races and was the full-time crew chief for Kyle Larson in the series last year.
Owens is expected to bring some stability to a program that has used five different crew chiefs over the past two seasons. Almirola's full-time crew chief last year, Todd Parrott, is no longer with the company after testing positive for a banned substance last year (Parrott has since completed the NASCAR Road to Recovery program).
"We've both been open with each other, and we know we're going to make mistakes," Owens said. "But we also know if we work together, we can do some great things. I think right now there's good chemistry within the team, and I don't see why there's any reason where we can not only improve the track performance, but contend for some wins."
Winning has been the goal for Petty since his 2010 purchase. Ambrose has won twice in that span, both at Watkins Glen, but the iconic No. 43 hasn't been to Victory Lane since 1999.
With the spotlight on him Wednesday, the all-time leader in NASCAR wins -- who addressed the media a few hundred yards away from the NASCAR Hall of Fame, of which he is a member -- detailed why he thinks Almirola is the man to do it.
"When we signed Aric on, we knew he had the talent, he was just never in a concrete place where he could put 100 percent of his effort into it," Petty said. "And now that he's got that experience and that racing (the past two years), it'll start showing up.
"We're probably in the best shape we've been in the last three or four years. … We've got some new sponsorship coming on, and some of the people that stayed on have really stepped up. I guess we'll have to have a little talk with the drivers and get them to step up a little, too."
The last line was delivered as Petty gave a sideways glance to his drivers, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, his face wearing that fantastic Petty grin. Sure, it was a comment delivered in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but the message still boomed loud and clear over the microphone.
It's time to win.
"When Richard … got into the business, (he) didn't want to run in the back of the pack," team CEO Brian Moffitt said. "One of the traditions of the Pettys is to run up front and win races. That's what we're in this for."