With a pair of top-10 finishes this season on the series' short tracks, it's not surprising to learn that Aric Almirola is looking forward to this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stop at Richmond International Raceway.
That, however, wasn't always the case.
"You know, in years past at Richard Petty Motorsports our mile?and?a?half program has really been our strong suit and I've kind of dreaded going to the short tracks," Almirola said Tuesday. "Even though I like them, I've kind of dreaded it because I knew that our short-track program wasn't very good, and it was a struggle just to run 20th. We had to fight tooth and nail."
Almirola finished a career-best third earlier this year at Bristol, a site where he previously had just one top-10. At Martinsville, where he finished 20th twice last season, he brought the No. 43 Ford home in eighth.
"It's kind of flip-flopped on us," said Almirola, who enters Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400 24th in points. "Our short-track program has been a lot better this year ? we've really been competitive ? and our mile-and-a-half program has actually been struggling."
Away from the short tracks, Almirola's best result this season has come at Texas Motor Speedway, where he finished 12th. Eight of his 14 career top-10s have come on tracks 1 mile or longer.
Teammate Marcos Ambrose, driver of the organization's No. 9 Ford, has also posted solid short-track efforts this year, finishing fifth at both Bristol and Martinsville. He enters this weekend's race 17th in points.
Although he's been racing on the Cup level since 2007, this is only the third year Almirola has competed full-time. He has more than 10 Cup starts at only two of the series' 23 tracks and fewer than five starts at 13 others.
Including Richmond, where he will be making his fifth Cup start.
"It's certainly an advantage to have more experience ? because when you show up you know exactly what to expect and what to look for in your race car to be fast," Almirola said. "A lot of places we go, the race track is so different in the race than it is in practice and in qualifying, so having that experience obviously pays off."
That he's had some measure of success at the majority of the tracks helps, he said.
"I feel like I understand what it takes to go fast at most of the race tacks we go to. There are still a handful ? that are not my strong suit and that I've continued to struggle with a little bit, but for the most part I don't think it's that big of a disadvantage. I'd certainly take more experience, but that will come over time."
Crew chief Trent Owens joined the team during the offseason, after spending 2013 working with driver Kyle Larson in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Owens had limited experience in Cup with a handful of drivers before getting the call to oversee the No. 43 team on a full-time basis. He did, however, have nearly 250 Nationwide starts as crew chief where he earned five wins with five different drivers.
Rule changes have helped with the transition, Owens said, while a revamped Chase format appears to have altered race-day strategy to a degree.
"The Cup Series is a little bit more conservative ? a lot more four-tire changes throughout the middle portions of the race," he said. "You've got more time to work on your car, which in my opinion (is) a lot nicer. You always felt rushed ? in the Nationwide (Series), like this is your last chance to get it right.
"The strategy calling in the Cup Series has been a welcome change, but I have noticed a few of the guys out there making really aggressive calls toward the end of the race and I'm sure that's driven by the Chase format, which is a good thing."
Almirola, he said, is "a great talent ? and I don't think he's shown his ability on the race track. I think he's just as good as any of those guys.
"I think that we have a shot to win some races this year and I'm looking forward to that."
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