In the midst of a silly season that has been particularly silly, a series of reports popped up this week about the future of Richard Petty Motorsports. The King’s team potentially has a lot on its plate in the next few months. At the moment, there is no guarantee that Aric Almirola will return to the No. 43 car next year. Sponsorship is a question mark as well, with the team working to retain Smithfield beyond 2017.
Additionally, while RPM remains a one-car outfit, the team still owns two charters. Following the closure of the No. 44 team, Petty leased to charter to Go FAS Racing. Per NASCAR’s charter rules, RPM would either have to use that charter or sell it next year. If the team is able to field a second car in 2018, Darrell Wallace Jr. remains the most likely candidate, although sponsorship will be the determining factor.
The latest development for RPM is Saturday’s report, originally from Catchfence.com, that the team will not renew the lease on its current shop in Mooresville, North Carolina.
The move might amount to no major changes for the team. It is plausible that Petty and his associates determined that they needed a shop that would better serve the team’s needs, and will return to the track in the same form in 2018. The real change would happen if the team’s needs required a new technical alliance or manufacturer relationship.
Petty’s team has fielded Fords since 2010, when the organization absorbed the remnants of Yates Racing. The team continues to use Roush Yates engines, and has received technical support from Roush Fenway Racing off and on. The arrangement has produced modest success. Marcos Ambrose captured two wins at Watkins Glen International for the team in 2011 and 2012, and Almirola took the No. 43 car back to victory lane in Daytona’s summer race in 2014. The win propelled Almirola into the playoffs that year, and the team nearly made its way back to the postseason in 2015.
The 2016 season was a different story.
Almirola and Brian Scott struggled mightily, and neither of them scored a top-10 finish until the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. When Scott decided to step away from full-time driving, Almirola remained as RPM’s sole driver.
This year has presented its own set of challenges for the team. Almirola got off to a better start than in previous years, and he appeared to have a better shot at making the playoffs than last year. Of course, a terrifying crash at Kansas Speedway left Almirola with a back injury and on the sidelines for seven races. With Almirola 30th in points, the No. 43 team could still make the playoffs with a win, but it would require a perfect performance in one of the next two races and he did finish fourth at Richmond Raceway in 2015.
The unfortunate reality is that, after trying to build a winning team with a stable foothold in NASCAR, Petty finds himself almost back where he was nine years ago. Back in 2008, with Petty Enterprises facing an uncertain future, The King forged a partnership with Boston Ventures in an effort to keep the team going.
However, Boston Ventures’ assistance was not enough to save Petty’s team, and the venerable organization merged with what was left of Gillette Evernham Motorsports to form RPM. The ownership structure of the current team has changed a few times over the years. Most notably, Petty gained primary control of the organization in 2011.
Petty certainly was not alone in his struggles. The late 2000s featured a flurry of team mergers, contractions, and outright closures that decimated NASCAR’s middle class of race teams. Even if Petty Enterprises is no more, The King has managed to outlast many of his fellow team owners who have left the sport in the last decade.
The trouble is that RPM’s goal has never advanced beyond survival. The relative success of the team with Ambrose, Almirola and Kasey Kahne suggested that there was room for growth. But inconsistency and sponsorship woes that never seemed to go away have kept Petty and his associates looking over their shoulders instead of ahead. Despite years of hard work, another restructuring of ownership or new technical support might be the only way to keep The King’s court intact.
Many of this week’s reports have linked RPM with Richard Childress Racing. Any partnership between the two would require a switch to Chevrolet for Petty’s team. Planning a manufacturer switch this late in the year would be difficult, but there is no doubt that the possibility is still on the table.
Furthermore, if Smithfield still wants to be active in NASCAR, the company must decide if it wants to align itself with RPM, Almirola, or someone else. Having Smithfield’s backing would give Almirola leverage in seeking a new ride if he decides to leave.
Wallace, meanwhile, deserves to be racing somewhere in NASCAR, and at this point he could wind up in any of the top three national series. Bubba would likely contend for a championship in one of the lower divisions if he had the right equipment, but a shot at the Cup Series might be too good for him to pass up.
Hopefully, either RPM will return in 2018, or Petty will find some other way to remain involved in NASCAR. Now, at 80 years old, Petty remains popular with the fans, a major link to NASCAR’s history, and a fantastic ambassador for the sport. If there is a way for The King to keep riding into battle with his men, NASCAR will be better for it.
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