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Richard Petty's 1-2 Punch for the 600: Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose

Richard Petty's 1-2 Punch for the 600: Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose

On the pole for NASCAR's longest race, Charlotte's Coke 600: Aric Almirola, in Petty's legendary 43

   By Mike Mulhern

   Richard Petty knows it all too well – it's been 13 long years since his 43 was in victory lane.
   Can Aric Almirola turn the trick in this Coke 600?
   Odd are probably against him, given how strong Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski and Jack Roush's Ford trio are here at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
   But Almirola, though he is still looking for his first Sprint Cup tour win, has a lot going for him:
   -- he's on the pole for the 6:19 p.m. ET start;
   -- he's got a Roush-Yates engine, the stoutest on the stock car tour this spring;
   -- and he's now got veteran Mike Ford running his team and directing traffic from atop the pit box.
   Petty himself has been through just about everything this sport can throw at you, over his many seasons. Lately though, even someone as seemingly immune to this sport's many pressures as Petty can get a bit down. Okay, more than a little bit down.
    "Our problem from time to time has not been how good we run, it's how good we finish," Petty says. "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."


   The Legend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Almirola has never really had a full full-time season with just one team, though he's been around the tour as journeyman for some five years. Now 28, the Tampa racer has earned the sobriquet 'the Cuban missile.' How well he's on target now, well, Petty and Ford are both watching…and probably Ford execs.
   Almirola ran a few races for Petty late in 2010. "At Homestead, if he hadn't run into the wall, he probably would have won the race," Petty says.
   "I saw a lot of potential there. And at the end of last year we were looking for a driver, and I looked at Aric – he's really a rookie because he's bounced around and never got in a car and run more than five or six races at a time.  
    "After watching him run for us with the equipment we had and what he got out of it….our equipment is better now…so I'm putting the pressure on him to improve to where I think he can go.  
    "He's got a steady ride; he's not worried about losing his ride, so he can build his confidence up.
    "And when Mike came on, that's going to give him a little confidence, because Mike has worked with some drivers that hadn't had a lot of experience to begin with and help teach them. And the communication is what it's all about."
   The last few years Petty has commuted between Indy and Charlotte this weekend, but he has no Indy deal this season. "Even though I don't have much to do with the race, I just feel like if I'm here -- if nothing else – for mental telepathy.  If I'm here concentrating on what's going on here, things really work better."
    Petty is old school NASCAR. Really old school NASCAR: "We used to run here five to five-and-a-half hours. These guys got it made; they've got air-conditioning, power-steering, all that kind of stuff…so it's just a Sunday afternoon drive for them."
   Petty of course hasn't been in race car for, oh, a while….

   Mike Ford: after many successful seasons with Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs, the veteran crew chief is now heading the Richard Petty-Aric Almirola team, and on the pole for the 600 (Photo: Autostock)  

   Almirola realizes the history involved here. Even though the Petty operation the past several years hasn't been up to its legacy, there is still amazing history:
   "I'm not just driving at Richard Petty Motorsports, I'm driving the 43 car, probably the most iconic car in the history of our sport.
    "It's a huge honor to be able to put that 43 back on top of the board."
    How long it will stay up there may be part of Ford's job. Ford, after so many successful seasons running Denny Hamlin's team for Joe Gibbs, was dropped at the end of 2011, and he only came on board with Petty and Almirola a few weeks ago.
    Ford considers this 600 his first real weekend in charge, with equipment he's set up.
   "He 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 with the standard MO," Almirola says. "So Mike'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."
    Speed, Almirola says, has never really been an issue lately: "We've shown speed. It started at Martinsville; we ran eighth and that was like 'Cool. We can do this.'
    "The speed has always been there, it's just about executing. And that's the one thing Mike has really focused on -- trying to get all the little parts and pieces.
    "He's said it from Day One that that it's about executing."  
   And in the 600?
   "I fully expect to lead some laps," Almirola says.

  Marcos Ambrose: the most aggressive driver in NASCAR? (Photo: Autostock)

    Ford, a patient man, concedes "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.  You don't know the theories behind the mechanical pieces; you don't know why things have evolved to where they're at.
    "Coming in, it was very obvious that it was execution. And it's still execution.  
     "The very first day we went to Talladega the car had speed.  
     "I was real concerned going to Darlington; but we unloaded and the car had speed.
    "So it's just a matter of getting them right.
      "Up to this week I was just observing…and now able to contribute. As long as we keep our heads down, this can happen on a regular basis.
     "It took me a few weeks to understand the approach of how to tune them.  Last year all the Fords ran good at Charlotte, and we came back with that type of setup.  For the 'Open' we embarrassed ourselves running seventh, and regrouped.
    "We know we've got the balance right, and the car's got speed, and Aric is comfortable driving it.
    "It's a testament to these guys: They've worked hard….they've been beat down, and gone through some tough times.
      "You just put the dots together and look to compete."

    And it's not just a one-man deal for Petty and Company. Almirola's teammate Marcos Ambrose is on the outside of the front row, giving Petty a 1-2 punch at the green.
   "We're a two-car team independent here, trying to take it to the big super teams," Ambrose says.
   "An addition like Mike Ford is going to pay dividends. He's a winning 'pedigree' crew chief, and he brings with him that skill-set we can learn from."
    And which man will lead the first lap?
   "I want to lead that first lap, so I hope he treats me well," Ambrose says with a laugh.
   Both Ambrose and Almirola are known as aggressive drivers….
   "The worst thing we could do is cause each other trouble, so we know what we need to do," Ambrose says.

   Richard Petty (R) with crew chief Dale Inman: for years the gold standard in NASCAR for wins and championships (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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