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Victory At WGI Revs Up RPM’s Hopes For Future

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 17 2012

The victory at Watkins Glen International last weekend was a big one for Richard Petty Motorsports and for a lot of reasons. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Silly Season at Richard Petty Motorsports took a well-timed twist at Watkins Glen International, where Marcos Ambrose handed his team’s namesake a tongue-in-cheek bargaining chip in its contract negotiations with Ford Racing.

Ambrose’s dramatic, final-lap victory over Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing during Sunday’s 27th annual Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen brought a broad smile to King Richard’s face during the post-race news conference marking his driver’s second career victory on the 2.45-mile/11-turn layout.

Consider that Roush Fenway Racing is Ford’s No. 1 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team. Penske Racing will end its association with Dodge at season’s end on its way into the Blue Oval camp in 2013. Ironically, RPM had been mentioned in various media outlets as a possible replacement for team-owner Roger Penske’s two-car Dodge Charger team, which will switch to Ford Fusion bodywork and Ford FR9 power plants provided by Roush Yates Engines next season.

The RPM-to-Mopar rumors became moot on Tuesday, Aug. 7, when Dodge’s Ralph Gilles, president/CEO of street and racing technology brand and motorsports, announced the manufacturer would leave the series after failing to find a suitable team/driver partner to replace Penske for 2013.

Asked about his organization’s manufacturer plans, Petty acknowledged he has to finish-out his current contract

Marcos Ambrose got his first victory of the season last weekend and it came at a critical time. (RacinToday/HHP photo)

with Ford Motor Co.

“When the Penske deal came about, then we were kind of shuffled around a little bit with Ford,” Petty said. “I don’t think we were shuffled out, but kind of shuffled around. We’re just going to have to, you know, renegotiate our contract with Ford, is I guess the way it’s going to be. I seen some of the Ford people there (Sunday). I told them, ‘Me and Marcos won the race.’ I had the contract in my pocket; I was going to let them sign it right there. I don’t think it went over too good.”

Among those laughing at that comment was Jamie Allison, director of Ford’s North American Motorsports programs. Allison indicated the negotiations with RPM remain high on his to-do list.

“I’d like to focus on the fact that this year they (RPM) are a part of the Ford program,” said Allison, referring to Ambrose’s No. 9 Stanley Ford Fusion and teammate Aric Almirola’s No. 43 Smithfield Ford. “They are a Ford team, they’re powered by Ford and they’ve got great Ford drivers. We are in conversation and negotiation about opportunities around our teams, so I have to let a few things unfold. It is unquestioned that we would like to find a way to make sure RPM and the King are a part of Ford.”

Allison acknowledged that Petty’s stature as the winner of 200 Cup races, and a family history that dates to NASCAR’s roots, remain powerful talking points.

“I’m excited that we’re going to be talking, especially on the heels of this win,” said Allison, who was appointed to his current post on Jan. 1, 2010. “The King is right. They don’t call him the King for nothing. This is a sport about reaching out to fans. This is a sport (in which) there’s a lot of loyalty to Ford. Fans of the sport buy more Fords at a higher rate than non-fans. The business behind the support for our teams in unequivocal. So it’s really a matter of just going through the plans together and understanding the needs and opportunities and parameters we have to work out a program together.

“He’s with Ford and we’d like to find a way. Absolutely.”

Allison also admitted Ford officials had “mixed feelings” about RPM’s “exploration” with Dodge before its decision to exit.

“We feel sad that one of our members of the sport is not going to be in NASCAR next year,” said Allison, who has been with the Dearborn, Mich., automaker for over two decades. “First and foremost I really look at our participation in the sport as we’re part of a community. And when you’re part of a community you wish everybody well. I really wanted to make sure that Dodge and Ford and Toyota and Chevy remained in the sport. The fact that Dodge is not in the sport (in 2013), we’re going to let time work itself out in terms of its impact. It was disappointing.

“Nonetheless, we deal with the realities and they (RPM) are a Ford team. There’s many ways to look at these

Richard Petty and Marcos Ambrose took a big step last weekend. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

opportunities…in terms of ability to support. But at the root of it, really, we’re talking about the King. We’re talking about RPM. We’re talking about a great program. So we are really diligently looking through the options that we have and the opportunities that they have and see if we can find a way forward. We are committed to work it out this year and into next year.”

Allison noted that some Ford Cup programs offer technical support, and are done on an annual basis. Contracts for factory-backed teams are done in a three to five-year timeframe, as with Roush Fenway Racing and the No. 16 3M Ford Fusion driven by championship runnerup Greg Biffle; the No. 17 Best Buy Ford driven by third-place Matt Kenseth and the No. 99 Fastenal Fusion driven by Carl Edwards, a Chase for the Sprint Cup Wild Card hopeful.

Sammy Johns, director of competition at RPM, acknowledged the timeliness of the company’s fourth win since its formation in 2009.

“Winning races is always important and it’s going to help us tremendously when we do talk with Ford,” Johns said. “Ford has made it clear to us they want us to continue to be part of their team, and when we’re winning races – that helps. It’s important we continue running strong the rest of the season. We’re going to Michigan to try to win a race; if we can win another race we’ve got a shot to get Marcos in the Chase. All that’s going to help.”

Ambrose’s improbable victory on an oil-slickened racetrack was his second in a row on the historic road-course in New York State’s Finger Lakes Region. Ambrose, who finished 0.571-seconds ahead of Keselowski, sits 17th in Chase points – a distant 177 behind leader and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala fielded by Hendrick Motorsports.

The top-10 drivers in points after Race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 8 automatically will make the Chase. Positions 11 and 12 for the 10-race playoff are Wild Cards, and will go to drivers outside the top-10 with the most wins, as long as they are ranked inside the top-20 in points. If multiple drivers outside the top-10 tie for wins, the tiebreaker will go to the race-winner with the highest points position.

Kasey Kahne of Hendrick Motorsports currently leads the Wild Card standings (11th) with two victories, followed by single-race winners Ryan Newman of Stewart-Haas Racing (13th), Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing (14th), four-time series champion Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports (15th), Ambrose and Joey Logano of JGR (18th). Winless Wild Card wannabes are Edwards of Roush Fenway (12th), Paul Menard of Richard Childress Racing (16th), Jeff Burton of RCR (17th) and Jamie McMurray of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates (20th). Only four races remain before the Chase field will be finalized.

A road-racing expert who never has won a Cup race on an oval, Ambrose said that stat could change as soon as Sunday’s 43rd annual Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Ambrose qualified on-pole and finished ninth in the series’ first visit to the 2-mile oval on June 17 in a race won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. of HMS.

“We got the pole at Michigan. We were running top-five all day there,” said Ambrose, a two-time champion of the Australian V-8 Supercar Series. “There’s no reason why we can’t go there and surprise them again.”

Johns said a second victory definitely would place Ambrose, who is paired with veteran crew chief Todd Parrott, squarely in the Wild Card conversation.

“We need to win another race for that to be a possibility,” Johns said. “I mean, you’ve got Kasey sitting there with two wins and Jeff sitting there with one win. So another win would make it a true possibility to get into it. We’ve been trying to win on an oval for a while and we’ve been close. Momentum is so important in this sport, and we’re leaving here with momentum. So to go into Michigan with momentum, as good as we ran there last time, we’re looking forward to it.”

Additionally Johns said another win would be a huge morale boost to the team fronted by King Richard in partnership with Andrew Murstein and Doug Bergeron of Medallion Financial and DGB Investments.

“What Richard Petty and Andrew Murstein and Doug Bergeron do behind the scenes that nobody gets to see is so important,” Johns said. “For them to give us the tools and the people we need to come out here and get the job done, I can’t say thanks to them guys enough.

”We’ve got a real solid group – Todd Parrott, Mike Ford – who as crew chiefs have lots of wins and championships under their belts. We’ve got a lot of experience with our crew chiefs, great drivers, great crew members. Unfortunately, through the years we’ve had to downsize and when you downsize you’re able to put together a great group of guys. We’ve got a group that’s worked a long time together and communicating well. It’s fun to be a part of.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 17 2012
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