CONCORD, N.C. — It was just a couple of fast laps for Aric Almirola and Marcus Ambrose. It was a lot more than that to NASCAR’s “King.”
Almirola and Ambrose went 1-2 in qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600, the first time a Richard Petty Motorsports entry had started up front since November 2010.
To Petty, it was just the kind of thing that shows “what these guys have been doing has been right.”
Even though the two drivers faded in NASCAR’s longest race three nights later, the Petty program left with the confidence that it won’t take another 18 months to celebrate success.
“I can’t reiterate enough that we’re making improvement,” said Almirola, who ended 16th in Sunday night’s Sprint Cup race. “We see light at the end of the tunnel.”
It’s been a long and, at times, dark tunnel for Petty, the NASCAR Hall of Famer. He followed in father Lee’s racing shoes and became a seven-time Sprint Cup champion, winning a series record of 200 races.
The transition to team owner once Petty quit competing in 1992 wasn’t nearly as smooth. Petty Enterprises won three Sprint Cup races in the late 1990s and Kyle Petty eventually took over the operation. The family was devastated by the death of Kyle’s son, Adam Petty, during a practice crash at New Hampshire in 2000.
In 2008, Petty Enterprises was acquired by Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and team rechristened Richard Petty Motorsports despite George Gillett being the majority owner.
Two years later, though, Petty teamed with Medallion Financial and DGB Investments to form the current two-car team. Ambrose brought the scaled-down program its first Sprint Cup win at Watkins Glen last season. Almirola, a Nationwide and truck series driver who raced part time in Sprint Cup, signed on this season and collected his first career pole in NASCAR’s top circuit at Charlotte Motor Speedway last week.
“We’re a two-car team independent here trying to take it to the big super teams,” Ambrose said with pride.
For a while Sunday night, it looked like the Australian driver might have enough to stick with his Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing competitors. Ambrose led 20 laps in the early going and was running up front with the leaders most of the way until he snapped a wheel hub, needed major repairs to get back out and finish 32nd.
The results haven’t slowed the optimism of Petty, his drivers or team leaders.
Respected crew chief Mike Ford joined Almirola’s team a few weeks ago and saw then that there were all the pieces necessary to win Sprint Cup races.
“It was just a matter of putting them together, paying attention to all the details and executing,” Ford said.
Winning the pole was a strong step, what Ford called a “shot in the arm” for everyone on the team. “Now, we just have to build off that and keep improving and I have no doubt that we will,” he said.
Almirola said he’s steadily learned and improved during his first trip to NASCAR tracks as an RPM driver. He’s had only one top 10 — an eighth place at Martinsville — and was outside the top 20 in six of the season’s first nine races. However, he was 12th at Talladega, 19th at Darlington and 16th at Charlotte the past three races.
Those are finishes that have everyone on Almirola’s No. 43 team eager for more.
“When you go through a year like we’re going through, when you start seeing positives week-in and week-out and start building on those and can build momentum, the guys’ spirits are up,” Almirola said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Ford’s expertise and experience — he helped Denny Hamlin to 17 wins and 66 top-5 finishes at Joe Gibbs Racing — are starting to pay off. Ford said he spent the first weeks observing more than getting his hands dirty. That changed some in Charlotte where Ford felt he was more involved in getting the car ready to race.
“I think as long as we keep our heads down, this can happen on a regular basis,” Ford said.
Petty, who’ll turn 75 on July 2, hopes so, too. It seemed he had the No. 43 in victory lane every week when he was behind the wheel. Yet, it’s been 13 years since John Andretti raced one of NASCAR’s most famous numbers to a Sprint Cup win at Martinsville. Still, Petty’s got his sights set on more than just a victory; he’s thinking the Chase for the Championship.
Almirola stands 19th in points with teammate Ambrose a spot behind in 20th. “If we can get a few breaks,” Petty says, “we still have to win a race or two, we’re got a good chance to make the chase. I think by the team we get to the Chase, we’re going to be able to win races day in and day out.”