RPM celebrates Charlotte success, looks for more

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CONCORD, N.C. (AP) - It was just a couple of fast laps for Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose. It was a lot more than that to NASCAR’s “King.”

Almirola and Ambrose went 1-2 in qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600, the first time a Richard Petty Motorsports entry had started up front since November 2010.

To Petty, it was just the kind of thing that shows “what these guys have been doing has been right.”

Even though the two drivers faded in NASCAR’s longest race three nights later, the Petty program left with the confidence that it won’t take another 18 months to celebrate success.

“I can’t reiterate enough that we’re making improvement,” said Almirola, who ended 16th in Sunday night’s Sprint Cup race. “We see light at the end of the tunnel.”

It’s been a long and, at times, dark tunnel for Petty, the NASCAR Hall of Famer. He followed in father Lee’s racing shoes and became a seven-time Sprint Cup champion, winning a series record of 200 races.

The transition to team owner once Petty quit competing in 1992 wasn’t nearly as smooth. Petty Enterprises won three Sprint Cup races in the late 1990s and Kyle Petty eventually took over the operation. The family was devastated by the death of Kyle’s son, Adam Petty, during a practice crash at New Hampshire in 2000.

In 2008, Petty Enterprises was acquired by Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and team rechristened Richard Petty Motorsports despite George Gillett being the majority owner.

Two years later, though, Petty teamed with Medallion Financial and DGB Investments to form the current two-car team. Ambrose brought the scaled-down program its first Sprint Cup win at Watkins Glen last season. Almirola, a Nationwide and truck series driver who raced part time in Sprint Cup, signed on this season and collected his first career pole in NASCAR’s top circuit at Charlotte Motor Speedway last week.

“We’re a two-car team independent here trying to take it to the big super teams,” Ambrose said with pride.

For a while Sunday night, it looked like the Australian driver might have enough to stick with his Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing competitors. Ambrose led 20 laps in the early going and was running up front with the leaders most of the way until he snapped a wheel hub, needed major repairs to get back out and finish 32nd.

The results haven’t slowed the optimism of Petty, his drivers or team leaders.

Respected crew chief Mike Ford joined Almirola’s team a few weeks ago and saw then that there were all the pieces necessary to win Sprint Cup races.

“It was just a matter of putting them together, paying attention to all the details and executing,” Ford said.

Winning the pole was a strong step, what Ford called a “shot in the arm” for everyone on the team. “Now, we just have to build off that and keep improving and I have no doubt that we will,” he said.

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