The last several years have not been the best for the Ford Motor Company on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shortest circuits. A manufacturer that has been known most for their intermediate track success, in part by the powerful and durable Roush-Yates engines, has struggled at the end of the day on tracks where engine performance isn’t as important.
Until two weeks ago at Bristol, Ford was winless at that track since Edwards’ previous victory in August 2008. At Martinsville, the car maker had failed to finish in the top three since October 2008. Although that statistic ultimately didn’t change after Sunday’s thrilling race, the fact that many were a factor throughout the lead-change filled 500 lap event was evident.
Turning in the most consistent finishes among the first two short track races of the season were fittingly the pair from Richard Petty Motorsports, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola. In fact, the teammates were the only two drivers to finish in the top 10 at both Martinsville and Bristol.
It has certainly been a trying week for the entire group with the loss of Richard Petty’s wife Lynda at the beginning of the week. It would have been a touching moment if the team could have ended the weekend with a victory in a race that was also sponsored by longtime sponsor STP, but overall a race like this was absolutely what they needed. It’s tough to imagine the amount of emotional grief the entire family has been through all week. The optimal results definitely had to serve as an emotional victory.
The Petty name is no stranger to success at Martinsville. The racing family patriarch Lee Petty won at the track three times before his son Richard won a track record 15 times at the Cup level. Following the King’s long career, Bobby Hamilton raced for Petty and put together a string of strong finishes before John Andretti took over and returned the team to victory in 1999. Now, the lightly regarded tandem of Almirola and Ambrose has steadily worked their way toward short track prominence, and it wasn’t a surprise going in, that they could contend for that always important chance at sealing a position in the Chase.
How did these two drivers become a force to reckon with at the short track level? Ambrose’s background does not come from smaller tracks, however, his knack to pick up on the style of racing has been a steady process. His best non-road course finishes in both Nationwide and Cup came at tracks a mile or less in length from the get go, and his mastery on the road courses definitely contributes. Conserving parts of the car, such as tires and brakes, are necessary for both road racing and short track racing. With less dependency on aerodynamics, skill and ability to conserve and maintain a fast car are at the utmost importance. The foundation that has been built around him, led by crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, is sure to be a difference maker as well.
Almirola started out at the short track level, racing late models as a Joe Gibbs Racing development driver, and was one of the first participants in the Drive for Diversity program. The current pilot of the famed No. 43 has achieved over half of his top-10 finishes at tracks a mile or shorter in length since joining the team. A good amount of his success has to do with the knowledge of Trent Owens joining the team as crew chief in 2014. Owens is a former driver on the short tracks, and is also the nephew of team owner Richard Petty. In addition, the support from Ford’s leadership team, Roush Fenway Racing, is beginning to show. Almirola said after Bristol that both factors have not only helped at the short tracks, but are benefiting their entire program.
“We thought when we brought Trent over that he would come with some new ideas, and our cars, everybody at Roush Fenway has been working really hard and everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports has been working really hard together to get our cars better, and I feel like we have some really good cars right now. I think it shows, (Ford) had four of the top 5 cars (at Bristol). Everybody has been working really hard, and that hard work pays off. I know everybody works hard, but we were not very happy with how our season went last year and we’ve made a lot of changes, and all of those changes have seemed to be positive.”
A couple big questions now arise. Will all of the hard work result in a stronger program at the larger speedways for teams like Richard Petty Motorsports? Will Ford’s run of strong short track performances continue next month at Richmond? Carl Edwards won the last time out there in September, which was the first Ford win in a Cup race at the 3/4-mile since 2005. All signs for Ford’s future success on smaller tracks point to yes, and that their recent rise back to contending for wins at these facilities is not a fluke.