Matt Kenseth may have won the Daytona 500, but Richard Petty Motorsports left the Great American Race as the talk of the town. With three cars in the top 10 – including a stellar third-place run by AJ Allmendinger – the newly-merged team appeared ready to set the sport on its ear.
But as happens often in Cup racing, you’re only as good as your finish last Sunday – and the last three races have left lots to be desired for RPM. The momentum of a promising start has melted with the reality of continued struggles at the sport’s intermediate tracks. With just one top-10 finish between them at Fontana, Las Vegas and Atlanta, the four-car organization has slumped to an average finish of 22.7 during that stretch, leaving them with just Kasey Kahne positioned in the top 12 in points.
The slump reminds many in the Dodge camp of Penske Racing last season, in which a 1-2 finish at Daytona fizzled in the midst of a slew of DNFs and rough-handling chassis which wound up keeping all three cars outside the Chase.
But as the circuit heads to the half-mile at Bristol this weekend, it’s hard to find a pessimistic view within RPM. Despite going through a leadership transition – with former Petty Enterprises VP Robbie Loomis assuming a detailed role within the company – the drivers don’t blame the merger for causing problems. Instead, their version of getting better is to simply dig deeper, claiming the bigger team leaves them with enough resources at hand to catch up to everyone else.
“We’re just doing the best we can, trying to figure out how to go fast,” said Kahne last weekend at Atlanta. “We’re making changes, we’re doing things every week to make our cars better.”
“The whole Richard Petty thing hasn’t changed a thing, as far as competition and how the cars go.”
The King himself has actually been a visible at-the-track presence so far this season, defying outside critics who claimed the merger would be the end of his influence after giving up majority ownership with newly-formed RPM. Instead, he’s proved a major motivator for a team looking to feed off his old school approach.
“I really like the racing mentality Richard Petty brings to this organization,” says Elliott Sadler. “He’s all about racing. It’s not about the bottom line, it’s not about cutting costs… I think he and Dale Inman bring that mentality to our team.”
According to sources, Petty also has proved a unifying influence on an organization in chaos as little as two months ago. At the end of December, Sadler’s contract was nullified as the team mysteriously switched gears just seven months after signing him to a multi-year extension. But after threatening legal action, the veteran was reinstated in the No. 19 with Allmendinger – Sadler’s rumored replacement – signed to a part-time deal in a fourth car following the merger with Petty. For his part, Sadler has been a team player ever since, hoping his new teammate joins the roster for a full season due to the benefits ‘Dinger’s No. 44 could bring to the table.
“I love a four-car team,” he admitted in between practice at Atlanta. “That’s more information that we’re sharing week in and week out. That’s more knowledge… and with this no testing policy, you have to have all the track time you can.”
“Right now, we’ve been looking very hard for a sponsor for AJ, and they’ve been running pretty well so far.”
But money makes the world go ’round these days, and the economy continues to take its toll even with an organization partially financed by billionaire George Gillett. The team recently announced it would avoid using the R6 engine that propelled Kurt Busch to victory at Atlanta, questioning the reliability of the power plant. But any type of transition in the motor shop takes money, and there’s no question cash is something RPM keeps searching for – in particular looking to fill primary sponsorship for the No. 43 while adding associates for the No. 9 and No. 19 on its roster. That’s why the upcoming short tracks could be a potential moneymaker for this group; it’s one of the few segments of the schedule left where pure talent trumps engineering nine times out of 10.
To do so, the team looks to keep milking its early success at Daytona for all the motivation it can give during this off-week.
“We feel like we’re making progress with our cars and making them better every week,” Sadler added, looking ahead to the future. “So actually, we’re sitting in a pretty good spot right now. It’s not like we’re digging out of a hole, it’s not like we have the panic button pushed.”
For a team going through its share of ups and downs, perhaps that’s its best saving grace.
Frontstretch’s Doug Turnbull provided research and information for this article.