A rain-shortened race at Daytona in 2014 was the break that Aric Almirola was looking for. It granted him the opportunity to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, even while not having much luck in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
So far in 2015, the numbers don’t look as impressive as last year. The No. 43 team has only one top 10 finish, but an average finish of 18.6, which is nearly three positions better than 2014. At the conclusion of Homestead last year, Almirola finished the season with seven top 10s, which is a career-high.
“We just need to get more speed out of our cars,” Almirola told Speedway Digest. “I know every driver wants a faster car but honestly that’s just what we need right now. Our cars are good but they’re not great. We just need to continue to work hard on everything, the chassis, and the aero.”
Inconsistent could describe the Tampa native’s season thus far.
“So far I would give us a B,” Almirola said. “I think we’ve done a really good job at getting all we can with what we have to work with and I think we’ve made steady progress on continuing to get better. We certainly still have room for growth and we still have some things that we need to work on to compete at a higher level each week.”
So far this season, the Cup Series has tested three different rules packages for the future. NASCAR wants to put on the best show for the fans, but with that comes a downfall. It is very expensive to try all of these rule packages, especially for a smaller team such as Richard Petty Motorsports.
The organization has two full-time cars, with Almirola sitting just outside of the Chase bubble in the 17th position. His fully-funded No. 43 ran well at Kentucky – the first track with a low downforce package – but ran outside of the top 20 at Indianapolis, which saw a high drag package.
“It’s really difficult and it’s very expensive to be honest,” said Almirola. “We have cars that have already gone through our assembly process that need to be torn apart and need to be re-assembled with the new rules package. There is just a lot that goes into it and it’s a very big undertaking for the teams. It’s even harder for a race team like ours.”
Within the Ford camp, no two teams work all that close together. Team Penske is separate from Roush Fenway Racing, which works separate from Richard Petty Motorsports. If the teams were to align like some of the Chevrolet teams, such as Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, it might make a difference in on-track performance.
“We have to accept the role that we are in with our manufacture and do the best we can with what we have to work with,” said Almirola. “Ford has been a great partner for us over the years and we continue to build that relationship with them and I think we’ve got a stronger relationship with the people at Ford now than we probably ever had and we rely on them heavily for technical support and wind tunnel time.”
Within Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola and teammate Sam Hornish, Jr. work well together. Hornish isn’t having the season that he would like in his return to the Cup Series, but the two teams bounce ideas off of one another and it has helped the team improve.
“We work together pretty close,” said Almirola. “Sam has a different driving style then I do. So you can’t always just copy and paste each other’s stuff. But, we certainly work together and talk through our changes. We try to help each other every weekend.”
“Anytime that you give away a lot of points like that, it’s really hard to make up. Our competition is so tough and so consistent that it’s really hard to bounce back from weekends like that.”
With a few strong tracks for the team prior to the Chase, Almirola and crew chief Trent Owens are looking to do the unthinkable and become a contender for the second year in a row as an underdog.
Almirola currently sits just outside of the Chase bubble, 25 points behind Kasey Kahne. That will all change when Kyle Busch gets into the top 30 in standings, filling in one of the 16 spots for the Chase.
“I think we need to win a race between now and Chicago so we can make this Chase,” said Almirola. “Everything that we can physically work on at our shop at Richard Petty Motorsports we have to work on and make it better.”
Heading into Watkins Glen, Almirola has just five races remaining before the Chase cutoff at Richmond. The No. 43 team has run well in the past at Michigan, but their best shot at a victory will probably be Bristol. Almirola finished third at Bristol in the spring of 2014.
“It would mean a lot,” Almirola said of trying to qualify for the chase in back-to-back seasons. “I think our race team deserves that. I think we have a good race team. I think we understand that once you get to the Chase that we need to have what it takes to compete at that level after having that experience from last year. I would love another shot at it and give this group of guys another chance to go compete in the Chase.”