The famed No. 43 Ford is the machine Aric Almirola continues to pilot since he first stepped behind the wheel of the sky blue car in 2012.
As Richard Petty Motorsports is in the midst of a transformation, forming its own chassis department at the start of 2016, Almirola began to see the massive undertaking pay off prior to injuring his back at Kansas Speedway in May. The Florida native earned three top 10s through the first 10 contests in 2017, sitting 20th in the standings before sitting out for two months.
Now that Almirola is back and more determined than ever before to succeed, his focus remains on bringing the No. 43 car into Victory Lane. Frontstretch spoke with Almirola at Pocono Raceway, discussing his return to NASCAR competition, expectations moving over and the future with Richard Petty Motorsports.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch.com: After a few weeks of being back in the car, how does your back feel?
Aric Almirola: My back feels great. I feel back to normal. That all seems to be going really well. I’ve been really happy with the recovery process and getting my back into racecar condition.
Wolkin: How much of a relief is it to get back into the car and not feel pain?
Almirola: It’s a huge relief. When you break a bone or have an injury of the sort of nature that takes you out of your day-to-day routine, that’s a struggle in of itself. But when it takes away from your job, especially when it’s something you’re very passionate about like I am with driving a racecar, it’s tough. It’s very challenging to not be able and do what you love to do. It’s been very nice to get back in the racecar and get back into the swing of things.
Wolkin: Though it was a freak accident, how do you try to prevent something like that from happening again?
Almirola: You don’t. You really can’t. It’s in God’s hands, man. That’s the only way I can put it or be OK with it. God is in control and I’m not. I know I have to go out, do my job and drive my racecar. If something were to happen again, it will happen again. But the chances, when you look back at our sport over the years, are slim.
Wolkin: What’s the biggest difference in your performance prior to the injury compared to now?
Almirola: Before I got injured, I thought we had a steady run of good finishes. I was pretty happy with where we were headed and getting the cars going back in the right direction as far as being competitive. After, I think the cars continue to improve, and your competition continues to get better. We’ve been doing the same. We just have to continue to challenge ourselves to get better every week. I feel fine inside the racecar physically. I feel like we’ve gone to a few racetracks that have notoriously been not so good of racetracks for us and we’ve been able to be somewhat competitive.
Wolkin: What are your expectations now that you’re back and healthy?
Almirola: I expect to continue to get better. We need to continue to try and improve on our finishes and the way we run throughout the weekends.
Wolkin: A few years ago, you were in New York City for the Smithfield extension announcement. What’s your relationship been like with them, trying to grow the partnership?
Almirola: It’s been great. Of all the sponsors I’ve worked with in our sport in the 14 years I’ve been involved and around NASCAR, Smithfield has been excellent to work with. They’re engaged and they’re such a great company. Not only are they interested in sponsoring the racecar, but they’re interested in giving back to the community.
One thing I really appreciate about Smithfield is they’re in the business of feeding people. Some people can afford it and some people can’t. Some people just don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. Smithfield does such a tremendous job at making sure people get fed, whether they can afford it or not. I love that about them. They’ve done so much activation around the NASCAR program. I feel like they’ve been one of the best sponsors I’ve worked with.
Wolkin: With rumors that you’re leaving the team and bringing Smithfield with you, how do you deal with it?
Almirola: You can’t focus on that stuff. You have to focus on driving the racecar. That’s way above my paygrade. That’s all about the front office and for everyone they have working to solidify all of our partners. We want to continue to try to build a better race team and continue to improve. We have a lot of competition in the garage area, and we have to do everything we can to get better. That’s where my focus is.
Wolkin: Do you feel a sense of loyalty to RPM?
Almirola: They’ve been great. Richard’s been great to me and great to work with. We’ve really grown our relationship over these last six years. I’ve certainly enjoyed every minute of it and I hope it continues for a long time.
Wolkin: So the plan is to continue driving for RPM?
Almirola: That’s the plan, unless someone wants to tell me otherwise.