After finding stability, RPM looks to move forward in 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three years ago, the King wasn’t sure there would still be a Richard Petty Motorsports.
But after a rebuilding period, the Petty clan is starting to flex a little muscle in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
"We’re probably in the best shape we’ve been in the last three or four years," Petty said. "Everybody knows we went really to the bottom a couple or three years ago when our car owner went bankrupt or whatever and we got with a couple of guys and bought the place out and just tried to get some foundation.
"I don’t know that our year last year was that much better than the year before, but it was a lot more stable, and that’s what we’re trying to do now with our new sponsorships coming on. And all the people that had been there before stayed, so that’s really good."
RPM re-signed Aric Almirola to a three-year extension, grew the support of Smithfield Foods from 15 races in the original 2012 contract to 29 events this year, and returns the Air Force for a sixth season.
CEO Brian Moffitt said the financial stability has allowed RPM "to help us improve our R&D efforts so these guys can go out and compete at the highest level." RPM hired former crew chief and Michael Waltrip Racing team engineer Scott McDougal to oversee research and testing. Establishing a greater technical base within its Concord, N.C., shop will allow RPM to be more than just a turnkey customer of Roush Fenway Racing.
Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 RPM Ford, felt the organization lacked consistency last year, particularly with the introduction of the Generation 6 car. In his three years with Petty, the veteran has witnessed RPM go "from surviving to thriving."
Ambrose thinks the front office’s commitment to acquiring additional engineering, along with NASCAR’s new rules package will benefit RPM greatly in 2014.
"I’ve seen Richard Petty Motorsports go from survival to commercially viable, and now they’re really going to focus on track performance. And it’s the first time that Iâve seen them reinvest in the competition side of our race program," Ambrose said. "Adding human resources to it is important — starting to think for ourselves is really, really important.
"We’ve been a customer, to some degree, over the couple of years. We’ve been getting supplied our technical assistance, engines and cars. Now, we’re starting to pose our own questions and find our own solutions with R&D and all the testing we’re going to do this year. We’re actually adding a lot of resources to our program, and I think you’re going to see a big change in our performance because of it."
With NASCAR expanding the Chase to the Sprint Cup field from 12 to 16 and a win providing an almost automatic berth, Ambrose is quick to point out, "I would have made it two of the last three years."
Now, he will be surprised if both teams don’t qualify for the playoffs by winning races.
Almirola is solid on intermediate tracks and has posted top-five finishes at Martinsville and Dover, as well. Ambrose has two victories at Watkins Glen, and nearly won at Sonoma Raceway. His crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, said, "There’s no bigger favorite at any racetrack we go to than Marcos at Watkins Glen.â"
But Ambrose thinks the team is "gaining strength" and "can win anywhere — not just road courses."
With NASCAR’s new qualifying procedure, teams won’t have the luxury of changing anything other than tape on the grille, tire pressures and wedge adjustments during the exercise. Therefore, when teams unload the cars at the track, they will have to be dialed in and ready to race.
"You have to have the engineers to really tweak stuff," Petty said. "It used to be that we got close and it worked, so we feel like that we’re way better off than we’ve been on that part of the deal. I guess we’ll have to have a little talk with the drivers and get them to step up a little, too."
Ambrose already is feeling the pressure. He admitted that 2013 wasnât his best effort. Traditionally, he has "seen an upward trajectory in performance" each year, but that was missing last year. Starting his fourth season with RPM, the 37-year-old native of Laucheston, Australia, said he has "an awful lot to prove."
There has been talk that Ambrose wants to return Down Under to raise his daughters, but he insisted his results will determine whether he continues to race in NASCAR.
"If you make the Chase, you can’t go home, can you?" Ambrose said.
"You’re one of the top 16 drivers in the world in this format, and you’d be mad to give away opportunities like that. So right now my focus is to be in NASCAR and to be winning races. I think with Drew and the team we’ve got, we’ve got a great opportunity to do that — and that’s all I’m thinking about.
"If we have another 2013, I might struggle just to even get renewed if I want to be there. I’ve got a lot to race for in 2014. I can’t wait."