Drive on: Richard Petty’s team perseveres through grief

Marcos Ambrose (9) leads teammate Aric Almirola (43) during the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Last week was by all accounts a rough one for Richard Petty Motorsports.

On Tuesday, the organization co-owned by NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Richard Petty suffered a major loss as Richard’s wife, Lynda, passed away following a lengthy fight with cancer.

RPM also developed the Twitter hashtag #WinForMissLynda and distributed Petty blue ribbons in the Martinsville garage.

When Ambrose and Almirola finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in Sunday’s STP 500 — a race, ironically, carrying the name of Richard Petty’s longtime sponsor — it provided a lift for the entire organization on the heels of a long and painful few days.

"We’ve had a really tough week," said Ambrose after posting his second top-five finish in three races. "We lost Miss Lynda. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Petty family right now. We really wanted to win for them bad out there, but we’ll take a top five. We’re really proud of our efforts."

Photos: Remembering the life of Lynda Petty

Equally pleased was Almirola who, in conjunction with STP’s role as the race’s title sponsor, was a running throwback paint scheme similar to the one carried by Richard Petty’s famed No. 43 car in his final years as a driver.

"I have raced at a lot of places and every place I have raced has been very business-oriented and very corporate, if you will," said Almirola, who is in his third season with RPM. "This is the one place I have come to to drive a race car that made me feel like part of the family. That is the way they run their operation and race team. It has been a family run business since the ’40s and ’50s and it is still that way today. Richard comes in here and puts his arm around everybody and makes them feel like they are a part of the Petty family.

"So to lose Lynda, it certainly feels like we all lost a huge part of our family. Obviously, on my race team specifically, my crew chief, that was his aunt. Trent Owens’ aunt passed away. There was a lot more to it internally than just Miss Lynda. It was a huge part of our racing family along with being Richard’s wife."

Now with perhaps a little extra motivation to keep the momentum going in Lynda’s memory, Almirola and Ambrose are upbeat about the future of the company. Both recorded top-five finishes three weekends ago at Bristol, with Almirola third and Ambrose fifth. Martinsville was just the latest in what has been a strong last few weeks for the organization.

"Performance has picked up and that adds a lot of confidence for me as a driver to know that I have people internally in our company behind us working hard to improve our performance," Ambrose said. "It has added to what we already had in place. I think that the sentiment inside my team, the 9 team, is a feeling of as much optimism as there has ever been.

NASCAR teams honor Lynda Petty at Martinsville Speedway

"I think we have a real scope to keep improving and have only scratched the surface. I think the path we are on is looking better and better."

"We were doing the right things and putting the right people in place," Almirola said. "When you start doing those things, the results come — and they are. We aren’t just talking about it anymore. We talked about it all winter and now we are doing it. We told people we were doing things to increase our performance on the racetrack, and now we are walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. That gives me a lot of confidence.

"All the talking in the offseason had me fired up and ready to go but now that we have actually gotten it done on the racetrack and running better than we ever have, it makes me more confident than I have ever been going to the racetrack and getting in the race car."