What will Richard Petty Motorsports need to become a contender once again?
Sunday's race at Bristol saw two notable performances by the Ford teams. The first, Roush Fenway Racing's 1-2 finish with Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. certainly was impressive. But perhaps even more so was Richard Petty Motorsports landing both of its cars inside the top five. Marcos Ambrose finished fifth while teammate Aric Almirola finished a career-best third place. It was an amazing moment for a team who has had all too few of late. But if Richard Petty Motorsports is to ever truly be a top tier team once again there's still work to be done.
Since forming from the ashes of Gillett Evernham Motorsports, RPM has had only a few bright moments at the Sprint Cup level. Kasey Kahne spent a few years driving for the organization, winning two races and qualifying for the Chase under the RPM umbrella (Kahne had additional wins running for other versions of the team). Marcos Ambrose drove the #9 car to victory lane at Watkins Glen on two occasions. Yet that handful of bright moments otherwise obscures how far this once-legendary racing name has fallen.
Kasey Kahne was a winner and Chase contender for RPM
The downward spiral of a once-proud team has been difficult to watch. Petty Enterprises, the team founded by Lee Petty that ran to 10 different Cup championships, was once a NASCAR powerhouse. But when Mother Nature finally caught up to Richard Petty, the team never recovered. A series of drivers tried to carry the Petty Enterprises banner in the decade that followed the King's retirement but none ever came close to matching his success. The one that might have, Adam Petty, died in an accident at New Hampshire. A decade of futility later, the King gave up ultimate control and became a part of GEM. Only the total financial collapse of that team's ownership and a new investor in Medallion Financial gave the Petty name another chance at the Sprint Cup level.
Yet despite the team's struggles, there is the chance for this team to be great once more. As Furniture Row Racing proved last season, a small team can survive. With the right people, sponsor, and technical alliance, those teams can even prevail. So what will it take to make Richard Petty Motorsports more than just another race team once again?
Without question, RPM needs to find/maintain a close-knit alliance with the right team. As things sit today, the team (as all Ford teams at the Cup level do) gets its engines from the Roush-Yates Racing engine shop. Provided they have the funds to regularly put new engines under the hood, that means they're playing with plenty of horsepower. That power has helped the Ford teams do well at tracks where horsepower means the most. Those engines have also proved to be reliably strong, avoiding the kinds of power/durability balance issues that plagued Toyota last year. So the under-the-hood component isn't a problem here.
On the other hand, the team's car chassis all come from the Roush Fenway Racing shop. By Jack Roush's own admission, those cars were a step slow on the aero side last year. Of the team's three wins last season, only one (Greg Biffle in Michigan, where several faster cars dropped out due to mechanical issues) came at an intermediate track. The others came at Phoenix and Richmond- or in other words, tracks where the aerodynamic issues are virtually nonexistent. Penske Racing, with one fewer car on the track, had one more intermediate track win. It's also worth noting that Penske was coming off a series championship and back to back five win seasons with those two cars.
RPM would do well to consider moving to align themselves with Penske over Roush. Whether or not the Captain would provide the cars and the information is another story. But if Roger is willing, RPM would be foolish to ignore the possibility. They'd maintain the strength of the Roush-Yates engines but gain the Penske advantage on the series' fastest tracks.
There's also the added dimension of sharing technical gains. Again, Furniture Row provides a great example. In 2013, Kurt Busch drove the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet but he was as much a part of Richard Childress Racing as either Kevin Harvick or Jeff Burton. Maybe even more so as both of those drivers knew they were on their way out early on. Busch was an active participant in driver debriefs and provided an outstanding sounding board for setups and track testing. RPM's drivers would benefit enormously from having the Penske knowledge base at their table.
In this area, RPM is ahead of more than a few teams in the Sprint Cup garage. Smithfield Foods is signed on (along with Almirola) for at least 29 races per year through the 2016 season. Their other sponsor, Stanley Tools, has a long history of NASCAR involvement in general and Ford Racing in particular having spent nearly a decade with Matt Kenseth at Roush Fenway. The only concern is that Stanley's agreement is a year-to-year relationship and would be difficult to replace if the company decided to take its NASCAR dollars elsewhere.
People - Drivers:
The last ingredient in racing success is people. And the most visible person in any race team is the guy behind the wheel. As noted before, Almirola is part of a package deal with sponsor Smithfield Foods and is signed on through the 2016 season. Despite being in only his third full year as a Sprint Cup driver, Almirola is hardly a newcomer. He shared a ride with Mark Martin for the ill-fated Ginn Motorsports as far back as 2007. With 111 Sprint Cup starts he has plenty of experience and a solid relationship with the team. In short, Almirola will get every possible chance to be a success story at Richard Petty Motorsports.
His partner is the Tasmanian import, Marcos Ambrose. He has the last two wins for RPM, both coming on the road course at Watkins Glen. Like his sponsor, Ambrose is on a year to year deal and there's been plenty of speculation that he may well be in his final year. Marcos said as much coming into the season, noting that if he doesn't show major improvement in 2014 that his NASCAR experience may come to a close. The Glen wins show he has the aggressiveness to win and he's had sporadic oval course outings (such as this past weekend at Bristol) where he seems poised to take the next step.
If he doesn't, the team won't be completely out on a limb. The team has a pair of drivers in its developmental program and has recent relationships with two others. Dakoda Armstrong and Corey LaJoie are just beginning their careers at the national touring level (Armstrong in the Nationwide level, LaJoie at the K&N East). Michael Annett and Ryan Truex both spent time with the team in the last two years as well. While neither Armstrong or LaJoie are ready right now, the fact that RPM is spending money to prepare young drivers bodes well for their future.
One can't help but wonder just how much this team could benefit from having a known, talented vet in their ranks for even a single year. Sometimes it takes putting an established driver in the car to know what you really have. As things sit today, it's hard to say whether the cars or Almirola and Ambrose are most responsible for the team's performance. A driver with known talent whose won races and had success elsewhere could really help the team pinpoint what needs to change for them to move forward.
One guy who would seem to fit the bill on a number of levels is Clint Bowyer. His contract with Michael Waltrip Racing is up after this season and after what happened at Richmond last year, something tells me he won't be against leaving MWR behind. He's made the Chase and won races both there and at Richard Childress Racing. And his asking price is far lower today than it was a year ago- in part because of Richmond and in part because of a winless season last year. After the failed experiment that Petty had putting Bobby Labonte in the #43, RPM may be hesitant to dip into the free agent driver market for a big name driver. But if Bowyer is willing to come aboard, RPM should roll out the red carpet to recruit him.
People – Behind the Scenes
Drivers may be the most visible but it is the myriad of people behind the scenes that truly make a race team go. The team is already on the right track, having expanded its engineering budget in an effort to close the gap with the teams ahead. They also made an interesting choice in bringing Trent Owens aboard to crew chief Almirola's #43 car. Owens is a Sprint Cup rookie with limited overall crew chief experience. His biggest job prior to this year was running Kyle Larson's Nationwide car in 2013 for Turner-Scott Motorsports.
Whether he's ready or not for this challenge is unknown; only time will tell that score. At the very least it's great to see an established team give someone like Owens a shot. If it doesn't work out there are plenty of re-treads available to take over on a moment's notice. The team should probably do more of this kind of hire. The truly elite crew chiefs aren't knocking on RPM's door. The veterans that are left are too often those either collecting a check or simply not good enough to stick with a better team. Instead of getting guys on their way down, why not take a shot at finding someone on their way up?
Classic Richard Petty diecast from Amazon
How 2014 turns out will have a lot to say in how much stability this team has going forward. If they can win multiple races and put one of their drivers in the Chase, then it's safe to say they're heading in the right direction and likely to stay the course. After all, running up front leads to happy drivers and happy sponsors. But if RPM has another year like they did in 2013- where the team had a combined one top five finish, one pole start and 82 laps led- change may well be on the horizon. Ambrose's departure would open up a seat- so long as the team can keep sponsor Stanley Tools on board. That kind of change also tends to bring new faces in new places in the garage as well.
Richard Petty Motorsports is a team that, by its very name, has a legacy in NASCAR that few other teams can match. The legend of the #43 is enormous but is becoming less so with each passing year spent running towards the back of the field. It's a number that deserves better. Can Almirola carry the number back to greatness? Will the pairing of he and Ambrose take a leap forward in their third year together? Or will someone (perhaps even Bowyer) need to be the one to take them there?