Pole At 600 Is A Biggie For King And His Subjects
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
CONCORD, N.C. – Three years ago, after learning he had been elected to the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Richard Petty was happy but also humble and reflective. Thursday night, after his cars and drivers won the front row for Sunday’s crown jewel Coca-Cola 600, The King was, well, a guy who knows Petty well had a pretty good word for what Petty was.
“Giddy,” Sammy Johns, director of operations at Richard Petty Motorsports, said in the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Yep, giddy. NASCAR learned Thursday night that even living legends get giddy.
Also part of the learning experience at CMS late Thursday was that the Sprint Cup operation which Petty gouged and flogged in efforts to just keep it breathing the last two years, could be close to becoming a team worthy of carrying its owner’s name.
So far this season, the numbers are pretty glossless. Three top-12 finishes for driver Aric Almirola, who won the pole for the 600, and 21st in points. For teammate Marcus Ambrose, who was second-fastest in qualifying at CMS, there have been five top-16s and an 18th-place in the standings.
Combined, the two RPM drivers have led just four laps.
Ignore the stats, Petty – who owns the gaudiest stats in all of racing – said.
“Everything came together tonight with both cars and it was just kind of a deal from my standpoint it
shows that what these guys have been doing has been right, but we just haven’t had circumstances right,” the winner of 200 Cup races as a driver, said as he answered a question directed at Almirola. “Tonight, circumstances were right. They had everything lined up and from that standpoint it’s a confidence-builder that they thought they were working hard and getting the job done, and all of a sudden they’re getting the job done. Even though it’s just qualifying it’s still a big deal for us because it’s the first time we’ve won a pole since I think last year at Phoenix or somewhere, but you just go run and do it. This is a big deal. We’ve got bragging rights for a couple of days here, so that makes all of us feel good.”
While Petty was feeling good about his team, his team was feeling good about Petty.
“It means a lot,” Johns said about getting a pole for Petty. “All the guys at the shop work hard everyday. Like Richard said, it’s a pleasure to work for Richard Petty. He lets us do our job and like he tells us all the time, it’s our race team. It’s up to us to go out and get it done, so it means a lot to sit here next to Richard Petty and know we’re sitting on the front row for the Coca-Cola 600.”
The past troubles for the team have been well documented; partnership troubles, money troubles, driver defection troubles and constant speculation that RPM was about to be RIP. But Petty kept the balls in the air.
Johns was elevated to his current position in 2010. Almirola was hired to replace A.J. Allmendinger, who moved to Penske Racing in the off season. And, last month, Mike Ford was hired to replace Greg Erwin as crew chief for the Almirola.
Ford, this weekend, finally has his feet on RPM ground.
“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,” Ford, who had been crew chief for Denny Hamlin, said. “You don’t know the theories behind the mechanical pieces. You don’t know why things have evolved to where they’re at, so coming in midseason when you come in it’s always because things aren’t good, so coming in it was very obvious that it was execution, and it’s still execution. If I had to work on this car again, I think I know where I would go.
“Coming in I’m the one learning up front and observing and what encourages me from the very first day we went to Talladega the car had speed. I was real concerned going to Darlington and, like Aric said, we
unloaded and the car had speed. After qualifying he was beating himself up and I was like, ‘Hey, it’s 13th. It’s not that bad for your first time to Darlington,’ so the cars have had speed, it’s just a matter of getting them right and coming to Charlotte last week, based on kind of a proven setup that was out there, got to observe that and this is the first time we’ve been able to come back and work on something and try to improve it, so I’m very encouraged to be able to do that, so the transition, I think, is getting better everyday.
“I finally felt like I was contributing this week. Up to this week I was just observing and was able to contribute, I feel, so that’s real encouraging. I think as long as we keep our heads down this can happen on a regular basis.”
The hiring of Almirola was viewed as interesting when it happened. He had been a knock-around guy who drove for the Gibbs team and Dale Earnhardt Inc. in Nationwide.
He drove a couple Cup races for Petty in 2010 and then the entire 2011 season with the Nationwide team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He was a constant top-10 finisher with JR Motorsports, and had seven top-fives. He finished the season fourth in points.
Some figured him to be headed for a ride at a big Cup team.
Instead, he signed with Petty to drive the 43.
“I saw a lot of potential there and then at the end of last year we were looking for a driver and I looked at Aric and 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,” Petty said.
“After watching him run for us with the equipment we had and what he got out of it, I said our equipment is better now and I know that he’s gonna start along here somewhere. He’s not gonna be up here, he’s gonna be along here, but I saw what I thought was potential, so I’m putting the pressure on him to improve from where he started to where I think he can go.
“Being he’s got a steady ride, he’s not worried about losing his ride, he can build his confidence up and then when Mike came on that’s gonna give him a little bit of confidence because he’s 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.”
After winning the pole for the 600 – the first pole for a Petty team in the 600 since 1966 – Almirola was asked if he may have proved a point.
“I hope so. That’s for you guys to decide,” he said to the media. “I just go out and do the best I can every week and whatever you guys want to write, you guys have the right to write whatever you want to write, but I just go out and try to do the best I can every week. I feel like I’m a good race car driver. I feel like I can get the job done and nights like tonight proves that to me so much more because anytime you can get a pole in the Cup Series, that’s doing something.”
The pole at the 600 sure did something. It made The King giddy.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.comOne Comment