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2014 NASCAR Driver Profile: Aric Almirola

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Plenty of the elements around Aric Almirola’s ride in Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 remain the same from last year to this year. The team is sticking with Ford, Marcos Ambrose returns as his teammate, and primary sponsorship from Smithfield Foods, among others, remains solid amid a swarm of investor cash.  

Yet one big shift — one that Almirola dealt with in the final races of the 2013 season — could have some negative effects on the team’s performance going forward. It’s big enough that Almirola, considered a long-shot threat at best to make the Chase last year, could see a sizable drop in on-track production come 2014. That shift is the loss of crew chief Todd Parrott.

Parrott, known mostly in NASCAR circles for commanding Dale Jarrett to the 1999 Cup Series title and a pair of Daytona 500 wins, was suspended by the sanctioning body late last year for violating the sport’s substance abuse policy. He was fired from RPM a week later.

One of the sport’s most experienced and respected head wrenches, Parrott seemed to have instilled some confidence in Almirola. That came with solid car setups capable of contending, especially at the 1.5-mile tracks that dot so much of the schedule. Early in 2013, Parrott led Almirola to consecutive top-10 finishes at Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Richmond International Raceway.

That stretch was the highlight of Almirola’s campaign before he unexpectedly faded some down the stretch, scoring just one top-10 run in the final 17 races. That finish also came at Kansas, one of his best tracks in recent seasons.

After interim crew chief Greg Ebert did little, Parrott has been replaced for 2014 by Trent Owens, a former Nationwide Series crew chief for both Braun Racing and Turner Scott. Between the two teams, Owens has five career wins from atop the pit box, but the vaunted No. 43 will be Owens’ first Sprint Cup gig.

When RPM announced Owens, Almirola was quick to dispel a notion that the new crew chief would cause a seismic shift.

“Our team is the same,” he says. “We’re getting better, but we need more top 10s, top 5s and wins. I believe Trent can help us do that.”

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But this duo faces the challenge of going to battle with a manufacturer that fell behind on-track in 2013. The typical lack of speed from the Ford camp last season could set a low ceiling that no crew chief can fully overcome.

No matter the result, 2014 may be a pivotal campaign for the Floridian’s future. RPM isn’t where Almirola can reach the top rungs of the sport, but it’s also not a place where he’s been able to dazzle routinely in mid-level equipment. In short, it’s been a marriage of convenience. RPM investors still seek “big-name” drivers, making runs at Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch in recent years, leaving Almirola vulnerable should he endure a year of bad performances.

Should he keep progressing — Almirola bumped his lead-lap finishes from 15 to 24 in one season — he’ll likely be OK. But RPM hasn’t made it easy on him.


What the Competition is Saying:
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Aric Almirola is a qualified driver working with the most revered icon in the sport.

“Almirola has the wisdom of Richard Petty to lean on to help develop his career,” a rival crew chief says. “He has a very solid relationship with his sponsors — of which the Air Force is one — so he will not have to worry about making it to the racetrack on a given race weekend.”

Regardless of talent, the organization for which he drives is only capable of so much, though: “Richard Petty Motorsports is a complete customer race shop,” says another crew chief. “They purchase everything. They only have a finish operation — they don’t fabricate anything on their own. Ford was behind with the Gen-6 car (last) season, and if they don’t make progress this year, he’ll be fighting an uphill battle against the other manufacturers.”

There are also questions about his life away from the track — and how changes in one’s personal life can affect focus. Says another crew chief: “Almirola is a new dad. Several drivers have struggled after welcoming their first child into the world.”


No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
Sponsors:
Smithfield Foods/US Air Force/STP/GoBowling.com/Fresh From Florida
Owner: Andy Murstein/Doug Bergeron/Richard Petty
Crew Chief: Trent Owens
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 18th (2013)
Hometown: Tampa, Fla.
Born: March 14, 1984


Top photo courtesy of NASCAR; Almirola courtesy of Action Sports, Inc.

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