20 races through the 2016 Sprint Cup season, one thing is for certain: Richard Petty Motorsports has had a dismal season. With rookie driver Brian Scott added to the driver lineup, this season is crucial for the organization.
Team leader, Aric Almirola currently sits 25th in the championship standings, 109 points below the Chase cutoff. Needing a win to make the playoffs, the No. 43 team is in a bit of a dilemma as they have yet to post a top-10 finish this year.
Almirola’s best finish of 2016 came in the season-opening Daytona 500, where he crossed the checkered flag 12th. Since then, he has 14 finishes of 20th or worse, leading the team to questions.
Looking at the rest of the Ford camp, most of the fully-funded teams have an alliance with another camp. Team Penske is paired with The Wood Brothers and Ryan Blaney. Roush Fenway Racing is aligned with Front Row Motorsports, in particular Chris Buescher. Richard Petty Motorsports has nobody.
Technically, the organization has a small alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, however, they have taken a step back this season, hoping for better success. 20 races later and RPM might be second-guessing themselves.
“I think so,” Almirola said when asked about the team needing an alliance. “I think we’ve kind of seen that this year. We still have an alliance with Roush, but it’s a little less this year than it’s been in year’s past. We’ve gotten a little more autonomous with building our own cars and hanging our own bodies and brought on some of our own engineering staff and things like that. To be honest with you, we knew that going into it it was going to be a work in progress. We weren’t just gonna be able to build from ground zero and come out of the box and be super-successful and ultra-competitive, but we did have a lot higher hopes for success than what we’ve seen this year.”
As the team continues to prepare its chassis and work on its own engineering, growing pains have contributed to frustration. If RPM was making this transition a decade ago, it would still be difficult, but possibly a bit easier as NASCAR has insinuated a no testing policy. Not being able to test out their equipment is a disadvantage.
When a team has an alliance with another organization, it provides more data, feedback and opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong. Look at the success of The Wood Brothers in their first full season since 2008.
“I realize that it is challenging to go out and start a whole program from scratch as far as building your own chassis and bringing on engineers to help develop that, especially now with the limited testing that we get to do,” Almirola said. “You end up testing at the race track on race weekends, which makes it even more difficult.”
Teams align with one another all the time. Furniture Row Racing aligned itself with Joe Gibbs Racing this season and Martin Truex, Jr has led 989 laps, the most that he’s ever led in a single season.
Historically, outside of Team Penske, the last five seasons have been tough on the Ford camp. Last season, no Roush Fenway Racing cars made the Chase for the first time since the Chase was implemented in 2004. Currently, no drivers would qualify for it this year as well.
But with no signs of wanting to align with another team, RPM is stuck in a bit of a box. Scott sits 33rd in the standings. Tony Stewart, who missed the first nine races of the season is 83 points ahead of the rookie driver, just 46 points behind Almirola.
“It makes it very challenging and very difficult to start a program like we have, especially when you’re competing against teams that have been doing it for years and years and years and have a lot of resources, a lot of people and a lot of experience at doing it,” Almirola said of the program. ” That being said, I feel like there could be some positives from having a stronger alliance with some of the top teams, but, currently right now, we’re devoted and right in the middle of trying to scratch and claw and work our guts out to figure out our program.”
In 2014, Almirola won his way into the Chase, winning a rain-shortened event at Daytona. In 2015, he finished 17th in the standings, the highest finishing non-Chase driver in the point standings. Back then, the alliance with Roush Fenway Racing was working.