Can Almirola build off of last season's Chase berth?
Entering his fourth full season at Richard Petty Motorsports, Aric Almirola is a believer that a low level of offseason turbulence — a rarity for the organization — is reason to believe that his team can keep moving forward in 2015.
A Chase for the Sprint Cup contender for the first time last year, Almirola enters this season with the same crew chief (Trent Owens), the same core group of team members, a steady sponsor situation and a race team on substantially better financial footing.
“Everything being kind of status quo on that side is really good,” Almirola says.
RPM certainly hopes so, as its owners have opted to invest heavily in improving the program. The team moved into a larger race shop this offseason and started hanging the bodies on its cars, a step toward independence from fellow Ford team and technical partner Roush Fenway Racing.
“We’ll still work with (RFR) on the technical and engineering side,” Almirola says. “We’ll still share information, share wind tunnel time, all of those things. But we’re going to be putting the bodies on race cars in the way we think it should be done.”
The move in-house should have a positive impact on Almirola’s season, as RPM won’t have identical cars to those raced at RFR. It’s a solution that makes sense when considering RFR’s frustrating season-long 2014 slump.
However, striking out on its own is a long-term process for a team that still has distinct disadvantages. Just a two-car program, RPM is third on the Ford food chain, with financials that pale in comparison to both RFR and Penske, even with the increased support. Almirola must deal with a new teammate, Sam Hornish Jr., who’s had limited success on the Cup level.
Most important, Almirola — despite making the Chase — still has much to prove. He scored the fewest points in the 16-driver field, as mechanical failure at Chicagoland ended his title hopes in September. He earned just two top-5 finishes in 36 starts; believe it or not, that’s a career year for Almirola.
It’s a safe bet that his No. 43 team will need to score another win — like the unexpected one at Daytona last July in the rain-shortened summer race — to earn another Chase spot. Almirola is most confident that it could happen at a place where RPM can bridge the equipment gap, like a short track. Kansas, where the driver led a career-best 69 laps a few years back before suffering tire trouble, is another strength. It’s a running theme for the program — bad racing luck creeps up too often to kill consistency.
“We’ve had a lot of moments of brightness. We’ve had many weekends where we’ve run up front in the top 5, the top 10,” Almirola says. “But we just haven’t done that on a consistent basis.”
That means Almirola will likely pick and choose his opportunities to go for broke. If he hits, he’ll make the Chase. If he misses? Well, at least his team has a long-term plan for success; we’ll see if a midpack points finish has it staying the course.
No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
Primary Sponsors: Smithfield Foods, STP, Fresh From Florida
Owners: Richard Petty/Andy Murstein/Doug Bergeron
Crew Chief: Trent Owens
Year With Current Team: 4th
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 16th (2014)
Hometown: Tampa, Fla.
Born: March 14, 1984
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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.