It’s a grueling 600 miles of racing. A marathon of endurance that starts in the heat of the day and finishes under the lights at night. A true test of both driver and crew chief as the driver holds on to his car, that hopefully his crew chief has made the right changes on throughout the day to keep it under him, and that together they have kept it together to be in the right place at the end.
Aric Almirola will lead the field to start the Coca~Cola 600 this afternoon in Charlotte North Carolina. This is the first time the #43 car has held the pole in Charlotte since Richard Petty drove it there himself, 46 years ago. That fact however does not put a damper on the spirit or the smile of “The King”.
The fame of the #43 car is not lost on the young Almirola. He knows how iconic this car and number are in the sport.
“It’s been a huge honor for me from Day 1 to be able to come to this organization,” Almirola said. “I’m not just driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. I’m driving the 43 car, probably the most iconic car in the history of our sport.
“For him [Petty] to allow me to do that, for him to ask me to do that, it’s just really special, and it’s a big honor to put that 43 car back on top of the board. To see it over there in Victory Lane and get our picture taken and all that stuff is really cool. I know it’s only qualifying — we want to be able to do that after the race — but it’s a start.”
“We’re happy with our car,” Almirola said. “Our [Ford] is pretty fast. I’m happy with the balance of our car, and it’s so hot right now that I don’t know that we’ll learn a whole lot, so we worked on some things trying to maximize getting on and off pit road and getting ready for [Sunday] night.”
“I think the speed in our cars has always been there, it’s just about executing, and that’s the one thing Mike has really focused on is just execution — trying to get all of the little parts and pieces and things,” he said. “He’s said it from day one that he’s gotten [here] that it’s about executing. Everybody is so good, and our competition is so tough, that if you don’t execute all the little small things, they’ll jump up and bite you. So I feel like as far as speed has gone, we’ve had really fast race cars, it’s just about executing all the little things.”
To make things even better for the RPM team, Almirola’s teammate, Aussie Marcos Ambrose will start beside him on the front row in the #9 Dewalt Tools Ford. Ambrose was asked about where he sits for the start of the race after Saturday’s practice in the 90 degree temperatures. Although by race time the temperatures will be different and the track will be a completely different animal Ambrose seemed to be confident that he will perform well.
“We’re not proving anything, and we’re not going to race in these conditions,” Ambrose said. “This place always feels the worst in the heat of the day. We had a really good Saturday night [in the All-Star Race] and we had a good qualifying session and good first practice [Saturday] morning, so we don’t need to be getting ourselves off base. It would be nice to feel like you’re at the top of the time sheet going into [Sunday] night’s race, but I think if you’re on top of [Saturday’s] sheet, you’re probably not going to be that good when the sun goes down.”
Team Owner Richard Petty could not be more proud of the accomplishments of his driver, and feels that they will easily prove themselves on the track in more than just the way they qualified.
“Even though it’s just qualifying,” the seven-time champion said, “it’s still a big deal for us.”
“If everything lines up, then you can wind up being a winner,” Petty said. “The best thing to do is be up front all the time, and eventually you’re going to win some races. Our problem from time to time has not been how good we run, it’s how good we finish. We have not been as consistent as what we’re supposed to be. If we were more consistent, then we would be up front a lot more.”