News & Media

Front-row sweep boosts hopes of revival at RPM

May 26, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Next step might hinge partly on contributions of pole-sitter Almirola's crew chief

It was only qualifying, two laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway, and just a fraction of the time that will be spent on the track Sunday during NASCAR's longest race. But the confluence of events -- Memorial Day weekend, the Coca-Cola 600 and Richard Petty's iconic No. 43 car on the pole at one of the sport's marquee facilities -- was simply too good to resist.

It all added a timeless feel to the race weekend at Charlotte, which is steeped in tradition as it is. Led by a No. 43 car now piloted by Aric Almirola, Petty's cars swept the front row for Sunday's event, sparking a wave of nostalgia and bringing a giddy, chatty King into the media center for the first time in a while.

Coca-Cola 600

Practice 2
2.P. Menard 186.123 29.013
3.C. Edwards 186.021 29.029
4.Ky. Busch 185.970 29.037
5.M. Truex Jr. 185.899 29.048
2.C. Edwards 183.349 29.452
3.M. Martin 183.231 29.471
4.J. Johnson 183.231 29.471
5.J. Logano 182.921 29.521

"Even though it's just qualifying," the seven-time champion said, "it's still a big deal for us."

It was, particularly given the struggles that Richard Petty Motorsports has endured of late. Almirola and teammate Marcos Ambrose have a pair of top-10 finishes between them this season, and the two drivers languish in the middle of the pack in Sprint Cup points. But the addition of new crew chief Mike Ford and the speed the RPM cars showed in qualifying has the organization hoping that sweeping the front row at Charlotte holds a significance that extends beyond this weekend.

"If everything lines up, then you can wind up being a winner," Petty said. "The best thing to do is be up front all the time, and eventually you're going to win some races. Our problem from time to time has not been how good we run, it's how good we finish. We have not been as consistent as what we're supposed to be. If we were more consistent, then we would be up front a lot more."

Thursday's qualifying effort wasn't exactly a surprise -- Ambrose had been the fastest driver in opening practice, with Almirola in sixth. In final Cup practice Saturday, Ambrose was 13th fastest and Almirola 34th. Everyone was chasing Brad Keselowski, whose top speed of 183.692 mph headed a top five that included Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano. But the two Petty cars made very few laps, only 17 combined, typically a sign that a team is comfortable with a vehicle heading into race day. That was certainly the case Saturday at RPM.

"We're happy with our car," Almirola said. "Our [Ford] is pretty fast. I'm happy with the balance of our car, and it's so hot right now that I don't know that we'll learn a whole lot, so we worked on some things trying to maximize getting on and off pit road and getting ready for [Sunday] night."

Saturday's final practice was run in conditions that neared 90 degrees. The Coca-Cola 600 will start late Sunday afternoon and conclude at night.

"We're not proving anything, and we're not going to race in these conditions," Ambrose said. "This place always feels the worst in the heat of the day. We had a really good Saturday night [in the All-Star Race] and we had a good qualifying session and good first practice this morning, so we don't need to be getting ourselves off base. It would be nice to feel like you're at the top of the time sheet going into [Sunday] night's race, but I think if you're on top of [Saturday's] sheet, you're probably not going to be that good when the sun goes down."

Taking the next step for RPM might hinge partly on Ford, who came close to winning the Cup championship with Denny Hamlin in 2010 but split with Joe Gibbs Racing after a rough 2011 campaign. RPM brought him on board to crew chief the No. 43 car beginning last month at Talladega, and Ford -- who has won 21 races at NASCAR's highest level, 17 of those with Hamlin -- said he's only now beginning to get comfortable tuning cars that he thinks have the speed to run up front.

"Coming in mid-season is very difficult these days because you don't know the philosophies that have taken that company to where they're at," he said. "You don't know the theories behind the mechanical pieces. You don't know why things have evolved to where they're at. So coming in midseason, when you come in it's always because things aren't good. So coming in, it was very obvious that it was execution, and it's still execution. If I had to work on this car again, I think I know where I would go."

This week, Ford said, marks the first time in his brief tenure at RPM that he's felt like he's really made a contribution. Even Ambrose, whose No. 9 car has an experienced crew chief in Todd Parrott, can tell a difference.

"This is the first weekend," Ambrose said. "[Ford] came on at Talladega, and we ran Darlington with what already was in the car, and we came here for the All-Star Race last weekend and came with the standard M.O. And he's like, 'I'm going to step off the island this week. It may or may not work, but we didn't run good enough last week for it to matter.' We struggled last week, so we came this week with something totally different and it's paid off. We've got a really fast car."

Almirola, who won his first Cup pole, thinks Ford brings an emphasis on details.

"I think the speed in our cars has always been there, it's just about executing, and that's the one thing Mike has really focused on is just execution -- trying to get all of the little parts and pieces and things," he said. "He's said it from day one that he's gotten [here] that it's about executing. Everybody is so good, and our competition is so tough, that if you don't execute all the little small things, they'll jump up and bite you. So I feel like as far as speed has gone, we've had really fast race cars, it's just about executing all the little things."

Although starting position can pay dividends at Charlotte -- three of the past five winners here have started on the front row -- it's a long way from the pole to Victory Lane over the course of a 600-mile race. Even, so the glee within the Petty team about its front-row sweep was infectious, and it sparked hopes that a franchise bearing one of NASCAR's most legendary names might one day be a contender again. Ambrose's triumph last season on the road course at Watkins Glen was RPM's first since former driver Kasey Kahne won twice in 2009.

"I know it's only qualifying, and we want to be able to do that after a race," Almirola said, "but that's a start."