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Ford happy to be back in Cup garage

May 04, 2012, Joe Menzer,

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- After separating from Hamlin, crew chief gets new start with Almirola's team

Mike Ford was relaxing 2,400 miles away in Los Angeles when he received a long-awaited phone call Saturday from Sammy Johns, director of operations for Richard Petty Motorsports.

"Can you be in the shop Monday morning?" Johns asked.

"[Mike Ford], in my opinion, is one of the top five crew chiefs in this garage. He was the reason we won that many races when we were together."

--Denny Hamlin

Though the RPM shop is in Statesville, N.C., Ford did not hesitate before answering.

"Yeah, that'll work," Ford said.

To say Ford is glad to be back in the Sprint Cup garage would be an understatement. After six full and very successful seasons as Denny Hamlin's crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, Ford found himself out of work at the beginning of this season after being replaced by Darian Grubb.

Ford said he had other opportunities but wasn't willing to take just any job. He jumped at the chance to work with young driver Aric Almirola, whom he said stirs memories of his early working relationship with a young Hamlin.

"The most fun I ever had crew-chiefing was the first year and a half with Denny," Ford said. "That was a lot of fun because of the role that you played. You worked together and you fed off of each other. I see that here with Aric.

"Hopefully I can be some experience and a leader for him -- and he's the youth. He can teach me some things as well, along with the group of guys there that I have a lot of respect for and who I think have a lot of respect for me. It's my kind of racing."

Almirola said he's looking to develop that type of relationship as well.

"To bring Mike in, he's had success with Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott before he even got with Denny Hamlin," Almirola said. "Then, to go to work with Denny and have the kind of success they had over the last couple of years, it shows that he kind of played that mentor role with Denny. That's what I'm looking for.

"I want someone who I can talk to on the radio who will teach me along the way, who will mentor me. From the leadership standpoint, I think Mike is going to be a huge asset. I'm looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to just being the guy who drives the race car and having Mike tell me what to do."

* Sound Off: Almirola, Ford talk about partnership

Ford experienced great success with Hamlin, helping guide the driver to 17 wins and six consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup appearances during their tenure. Ford owns 21 Cup wins as a crew chief overall, making the fact that he sat out the first three months of the season all the more surprising.

Ford replaces Greg Erwin, whom Almirola praised before admitting that he thinks Ford will be a better fit for the No. 43 Ford team.

"I'm not here to bash Greg because Greg is a great guy and a great crew chief. He has won races and will continue to win races," Almirola said. "But for me, just to have a fresh start is good."

Ford knows all about that. He admitted that the timing of his departure from JGR, which came relatively late during the offseason, was unfortunate and contributed to keeping him out of the garage longer than he had anticipated.

"That was pretty bothersome for me because there were a lot of shifts, and the timing of that was not good because there wasn't anything at that point," Ford said. "Nonetheless, I took full advantage of that. Through the winter and into the beginning of the races, I've never been able to spend time home with the family and friends. We took four or five trips with the family, and it was awesome."

One of those trips was to Los Angeles, but he was happy to cut it short and hightail it to the RPM shop to return to work. Ford said he's not dwelling on the past but on the possibilities that lie ahead with his new employer and Almirola, who is running his first full-time Cup season and currently sits 24th in the points standings.

Ford did admit that the end with Hamlin was not as fun as the beginning, despite their No. 11 Toyota team finishing second and ninth in points, respectively, during the final two seasons. They nearly won the championship in 2010, when Hamlin won a series-high eight races.

"I'm not going to say a whole lot, other than to say that a lot of outside influence made it not fun. The past couple years truly weren't that fun," Ford said. "[Parting ways] was best for both parties. Let me get something real clear: Me and Denny still get along fine. We text back and forth periodically, and I love Denny to death. This is business.

"I never had any qualms with Denny. Still don't. But in the organization, you see things that they need to work on -- and if you're the only guy who sees them, you're the guy who has an issue. It was time to go. It was time to move on. I don't have any qualms with anyone. I still have a lot of friends over there. It's life and you move on."

Hamlin said he was "a huge fan" of Ford's and "couldn't believe it took the guy this long to get another job." Hamlin also shed a little light on what he thought Ford meant about becoming the odd man out toward the end of the crew chief's run at JGR.

"Given the right opportunity, he can be very, very successful," Hamlin said. "He, in my opinion, is one of the top five crew chiefs in this garage. He was the reason we won that many races when we were together.

"But within our shop, he didn't always have the cooperation of everyone, and sometimes maybe people didn't believe in him as much as maybe they should have. Or maybe sometimes it would go the other way around. You've got to have everyone in the shop backing you 100 percent, and I think he felt everyone didn't have his back at Gibbs. It's one of those things where when times are good and you're winning, everyone is willing to listen to you and do whatever you want. But I think when we were struggling, he was having a hard time getting people to buy into what he believed in."

Hamlin also heaped credit on Ford for accelerating his development as a driver, predicting he would do the same for Almirola.

"He helped me dramatically with my short-track program, how I drive on the short tracks," Hamlin said. "I think he knows what it takes to win. He just knows how to win and he gives really good information.

"It's just his experience. Watch what happens when they go to a track where we were successful together. I think that's where Mike will give Aric a ton of information he can really put to use. Knowing Aric's driving style, it's a lot like mine, so I think they'll be very successful together."