In a career that has seen him go from one NASCAR series to another, often within the span of one season, Aric Almirola finally has some consistency in his life as driver of the #43 Smithfield/U.S. Air Force/STP Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series. Almirola won the first pole of his career in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca Cola 600 under new crew chief Mike Ford, who played a key role in Denny Hamlin's early success at Joe Gibbs Racing and before that worked with Bill Elliott. The team of Almirola and Ford have done a lot in a short time to boost Richard Petty Motorsports' performances, according to Almirola.
"Working with Mike has been really great," said Almirola in a recent NASCAR teleconference. "Mike's a great crew chief and a great leader, and he's really smart. These last few weeks we've been trying some stuff, trying to get better. We haven't really hit on what we need, but it's all in an effort to try to get better. We know that and we realize that. Sometimes it's not fun to run bad, but sometimes you learn kind of what not to do. So the last couple of weeks we've learned that and I feel like since he's come on board at Richard Petty Motorsports our organization as a whole has gotten better -- not just the 43, but I feel like the 9's performance has gotten better too."
Almirola commented during the teleconference that Ford has helped him as more than just a crew chief, and he elaborated on that later on. "It helps me tremendously to have his expertise and experience," said Almirola. "I'm showing up to a lot of these racetracks for the first time in a Cup car, so I have no idea what to expect, and how the racetrack is going to change from practice to qualifying and then from qualifying to the race. I'm really leaning on Mike and relying on his experience to know what adjustments to make in the car after practice is over to get it prepared and to know where the racetrack is going to go for the race and stuff like that. I've really leaned on him hard to help me with that kind of stuff."
In addition to the pole, Almirola picked up his best finish of the season, a sixth at Dover, with Ford on the pit box. Almirola's now looking forward to hitting some of the tracks he's already seen this season with Ford's expertise to back him. "I look forward to going back there (Dover) and building on what we had. We ran in the Top 10 all day and finished sixth. But there were some things that we feel like we could have done better and there are some things setup-wise that we feel like we can change going back that will make us better because our car wasn't handling perfect, but it was good, and we ran sixth. I look forward to going back to Charlotte. We qualified on the pole and ran good there. We look forward to going back there. Marcos (Ambrose, his RPM teammate) ran really well there. I felt like as an organization, we have a good package for there."
"I'm looking forward to Daytona this weekend," Almirola continued. "It's another track we're going back to for the second time. In the 500, I felt like we had a really fast car in two-thirds of the race. I got shuffled out and put in a bad position, and then they had the big one and wrecked up in front of us, and we didn't have anywhere to go and got caught up in a wreck. But I felt like we had a really fast car."
The fact that he is driving one of the most famous cars in the history of auto racing isn't lost on Almirola, who said he's still often in disbelief that he's in the #43. "I think out of all the numbers in NASCAR, 43 and the #3 relate with the fans more than any other car. And I would say probably the 43 more than the 3 just because it's been around so much longer. Richard has won 200 races. So I think when people see the 43 car, they know who owns it. They know who used to drive it, and the fans relate. It's a huge honor for me to get to drive that car. The one memory that sticks out for me the most is when we went to Kansas and celebrated the 40th anniversary of STP, and to walk up to that car, and to have the same paint scheme that Richard used to have with the 43 car, I mean it looked just like his car in the old days, the only difference was with the 2012 Ford Fusion, and it had my name on the roof. That was the special paint scheme and the one weekend that made me realize how awesome this opportunity is to drive that 43 car."
Source: "Transcript: NASCAR Cam teleconference with Aric Almirola," July 3, 2012, NASCAR Media
Paula is a long-time NASCAR fan who also covers the sport for Skirts & Scuffs and Examiner.com.