Almirola, Ambrose bring Petty glory

Richard Petty Motorsports drivers Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola will share the front row for the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.

It’s the first time that RPM cars will roll off first and second in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race since Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard accomplished the feat at Kansas Speedway in 2010. But a lot has happened since then to the iconic brand that shares the name of NASCAR’s first seven-time champion and only 200-race winner, Richard Petty.

The organization was sold at the end of 2010 and new investors were brought in. The race teams were streamlined from four to two squads for 2011 as the company strived to gain footing for its next chapter.

Gone from the RPM landscape were George Gillett and his sons, who offered more drama than direction after purchasing the company from Ray Evernham. Now investors Andy Murstein and Doug Bergeron have made their inaugural launch into NASCAR with the team.

AJ Allmendinger was retained from the first driver roster and joined by Ambrose in 2011. The company replaced crew chief Mike Shiplett with Greg Erwin in July. Ambrose won the first race for the new ownership group at Watkins Glen in August. Allmendinger missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup by one position, but finished a career-best 15th in the points standings in 2011, the best showing for an RPM driver since Kahne finished 10th in 2009.

At the end of the season, Robbie Loomis, former vice president for racing operations, was released from his duties. Director of operations Sammy Johns, a former Evernham lieutenant, picked up the slack. Allmendinger accepted a ride with Penske Racing and Almirola, who subbed for Kahne at the end of the 2010 season, was enlisted for the No. 43 ride.

After the first nine races in 2011, Erwin was replaced by crew chief Mike Ford, who experienced tremendous success with another young driver — Denny Hamlin — at Joe Gibbs Racing. For Ford, it was a reunion with Ambrose’s crew chief Todd Parrott, who he worked closely with during Robert Yates Racing’s heyday. It was also a turning point for RPM.

So how is the second generation of Richard Petty Motorsports faring against NASCAR’s top teams?

The King says the results have been “major and minor.” Among the major is sweeping the front row for the race, with Almirola on the pole.

“It’s been major improvement, but our finishes have not been as good as our running has been,” Petty said. “So we just have to get more consistent. After running last week, Marcos ran pretty decent in the all-star deal but Aric didn’t run worth a dang, OK? So they put their heads together. Marcos said, ‘I needed a little bit here,’ and Aric says, ‘Man, I was terrible. I was lost.’ So they came with real different setups (for the Coca-Cola 600).

“But you have to figure that every driver that we’ve ever had and every driver I drove against likes something different in their cars. In other words, you can’t set up a perfect car because you don’t have a perfect driver. Everybody feels a little bit looser or pushing or the way the car jumps around. By having Mike come in and looking at Aric from a different angle — he done pretty good with the 11 driver (Hamlin) to brought him along. It’s only been three or four races, but once Mike learns his lingo, ‘How loose is loose, how much pushing is pushing?’ Hopefully, they learn it quick. If you look at (qualifying), then they learned it pretty darn quick. The deal is, when we run 600 miles on Sunday, we’ll find out.”

For Almirola, it was his first career Sprint Cup pole in 47 attempts. However, the 28-year-old has bounced around between seven different Sprint Cup organizations in the last five seasons — and this is his second stint with Petty. Although Ford took over three weeks ago at Talladega, his early role was as an observer. Ford’s initial contributions to the cars didn’t manifest until Charlotte.

“We’ve showed speed,” Almirola said. “It started at Martinsville. We ran eighth at Martinsville and that was like, ‘Cool. We ran in the top 10 and ran there all day, so we can do this.’ We went to Darlington a couple weeks ago and I felt like I didn’t run a very good lap and we qualified 13th and I know I left some out there on the racetrack, so Mike has been great. We came here and we ran some things at the all-star race that weren’t exactly what we were looking for, so Mike came back with a few things a little different and we were a lot better.

“The speed in our cars has always been there, it’s just about executing and that’s the one thing Mike has really focused on is just execution — trying to get all of the little parts and pieces and things. He’s said it from day one that he’s gotten there that it’s about executing. Everybody is so good and our competition is so tough that if you don’t execute all the little small things they’ll jump up and bite you. So I feel like as far as speed has gone, we’ve had really fast race cars. It’s just about executing all the little things. We were able to do that (in qualifying).”

Of late, Petty acknowledges that he has seen consistency in the organization improved “with both cars, with both drivers and with both crew chiefs working better together.”

“They were up and down, but if you get one team settled down, then the other team will settle down accordingly,” Petty said. “If you got one of them messed up, then both of ’em is going to be messed up. With Mike coming in and calming Aric down, then that’s going to calm Marcos and his crowd down. And if we can get competition between the two teams, then both of our cars are going to be good.

“You got to figure, Aric is a rookie. He’s run a bunch of races, but it’s been two or three in this car, four or five in another car, six months in something else. He’s really, really never been consistent. If he’s got something consistent that he can put his gut into it and put his feeling into it and put his thought into it, then he can put his input back into it.”

Petty feels “very fortunate” that Ford has joined the RPM fold. While he considers Ford “old school,” Petty believes the veteran crew chief is good at bridging traditional racing practices with new technology.

Ford’s first few weeks were spent acclimating to RPM’s systems. His initial observations were “the cars have speed” — something Ford would have expected having worked with Doug Yates’ engines before. Still, it was a challenge for Ford to learn how to tune RPM’s Fords after working on Toyotas for the last seven years. With the success of the Fords at Charlotte in 2011, the crew chief opted to rely on RPM’s existing set up.

“For the (Sprint Showdown) we kind of embarrassed ourselves running seventh and went back to work and regrouped and made a cut at something and focused on race trim,” Ford said. “We didn’t really focus on qualifying (on Thursday), so we know we’ve got the balance right and the car’s got speed and Aric is comfortable driving it, so we can go get the speed.

“Like Richard said, it’s a testament to these guys. They’ve worked hard. They’ve been beat down and gone through some tough times and it’s a dang good group of guys and good cars. You just put the dots together and look to compete and that’s the business that we’re in. So these guys just executed the plan that was put out, and we’re looking forward to Sunday.”

Beyond this weekend — or even this year — RPM will have to decide what is best for the future growth of the company. With Penske Racing moving to Ford next season, RPM’s status will be downgraded from the second organization in the pecking order, behind Roush Fenway Racing, to third.

However, Penske’s departure from Dodge opens the door for a possible reunion with Petty. The King won six of his seven NASCAR championships under the Chrysler banner — three in a Dodge.

So would Petty consider a change of manufacturers?

"No, we’re in really good shape,” Petty said. “We get everything that Ford’s got. We get that through the engine deal with Yates — Yates Racing engines. The Roush cars are the same as our cars. They take ’em and tune ’em a little bit here. We take our cars and tune ’em. But we start with the same platform they got. So if they beat us, it’s our fault because we have the same platform that they got. They got the same chassis, the same body, the same rear ends, the same A-frames and spindles, the same brakes and the same technology that we draw from off the computers.

“Every Monday, they all go in and talk about what happened last week. Everybody tells how their car drove, then they compare the setups. Even after qualifying and the race, we know what (Roush Fenway Racing’s) three cars have and they know what our two cars have got. Most of the time, they’re somewhat in the ballpark, but they’re a little bit different because the drivers are different. But nobody’s got some top secret over the other guys.”

So is it Petty’s intention to stay the course with Ford Racing in 2013?

“Right now, our intention is to finish this year and worry about next year, next year,” Petty concluded with a laugh.

Numbers game

10: Lap average leader in Happy Hour was Jimmie Johnson with a speed of 181.173 mph.

15: Top-10 finishes for Kyle Busch in 18 Nationwide Series starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

20: Years old for Johanna Long on Saturday. She finished 22nd in her first Charlotte start.

Say what?

Brad Keselowski’s Nationwide victory was number 18, but the first for his crew chief Jeremy Bullins. When Keselowski was asked why he signed Bullin’s name placard, he replied, “You only get one first win. It’s like something else, there’s only one first time, so enjoy it."