Richard Petty Motorsports’ Aric Almirola hungry to revisit Chase success of 2014

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It’s the question Aric Almirola always gets. The one he’s been asked ever since joining Richard Petty Motorsports full-time in 2012 at the age of 28.

Is there any pressure in driving the No. 43, made famous by his owner and the team’s namesake?

“The answer is kind of a double-sided answer,” Almirola said during last month’s NASCAR Media Tour. “Yes, there is pressure that comes along with driving the 43, it’s the most iconic number in our sport’s history. So there is some added pressure with that.”

But for Almirola, now 31 and entering his fifth season behind the wheel of the No. 43 Ford Fusion, there comes a time and place when the history and “level of excellence” expected of his ride goes away.

“When I get strapped in the car and I strap my helmet on and they say ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’ or ‘Drivers, start your engines,’ I can’t see the car, I can’t see the number, I don’t see what color it is,” Almirola said. “All I see is whatever’s in front of me in my windshield.”

Almirola knows he won’t get that and similar questions from Petty, the seven-time Sprint Cup champion.

“He’s honestly at the point in his career where I don’t think he really cares about the pressure that it puts on me or anybody else,” Almirola said. “He understands the situation that I’m in, showing up as a Petty to the race track when Lee Petty was winning everything and showing up as Lee Petty’s son in Lee Petty’s last year’s model car. There was always a level of excellence expected of him as well.”

In 2015, Almirola and his team had the opportunity to compete against their own level of success instead of one established decades ago. With a win in the 2014 Coke Zero 400 – his first Sprint Cup win – Almirola qualified RPM for its second Chase for the Sprint Cup and the No. 43 for its first.

Their goal last season was just to get back to the Chase. He was 17 points shy.

“There was no other goal,” Almirola said. “Just make the Chase. Because we had just been in it and we knew how good it felt and it made us extremely hungry. It’s like a kid, you give them one piece of candy, they always ask for a second, right?

“I know, I have two kids.”

Almirola said he and his team, led by crew chief Trent Owens, entered 2015 better prepared to navigate the Chase.

“We had a lot better understanding of the level of excellence that it was going to take when we made the Chase,” Almirola said. “To come up (17) points short was disappointing, but every single guy on my race team has a fire in their belly to go get started in 2016.”

But 2016 brings a new environment and challenges for Almirola and his team. Among them is his third teammate in as many years – Brian Scott. A long-time veteran of the Xfinity Series, Scott was announced as the driver of the No. 44 late last year. He replaces Sam Hornish Jr., who succeeded Marcos Ambrose.

“I think Brian is a good addition to our race team, he brings a lot of stability to the race team,” Almirola said. “To be able to keep the sponsors that we had and to be able to add Albertson’s and Shore Lodge, it just really provides our race team with a lot of resources and Brian’s got a lot of talent.”

Then there is the new low-downforce package, combined with the new Ford Fusion body style which the team hasn’t had a chance to test on-track.

Almirola finished 12th and 11th in the low-downforce races at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway. The Kentucky finish was his best since finishing fifth at Dover five races earlier. After Kentucky, he wouldn’t finish better than 14th until the Southern 500.

“We don’t have a lot of notes to compare to, but the biggest thing we’ve done is built a car as early as we could, I think in October,” Almirola said. “We had a car, a 2016 Ford Fusion in the wind tunnel, and that was kind of our baseline. That was our first car we built and got in the wind tunnel and every car that we’ve built after that or took back to the wind tunnel, we’ve just tried to make better, better and better and we’ve been successful at that so far.”