Richard Petty Motorsports entered 2017 at a spot fairly close to rock bottom.
The 2016 season was a complete disaster. After ditching Roush Fenway Racing’s chassis shop and electing to build their own, the team looked off the pace for most of the year and only netted one top-five and two top 10s between its two cars.
To make matters worse, RPM was forced to downsize for 2017. The team shut down the No. 44 and leased out its charter to Go FAS Racing after Brian Scott’s retirement and the loss of the many sponsors his father and grandfather provided. It marked the first time since 1998 that a Richard Petty-owned team only fielded one car.
Despite the drawbacks, the team still had Aric Almirola and sponsor Smithfield Foods on board the famous No. 43. Both had been fixtures with the team since 2012 and provided hope that RPM could claw itself out of the quicksand.
A strong start to the season had the team quickly looking like a dark horse for the playoffs. After all, Almirola did make it into the playoffs in 2014 and nearly qualified the following year. RPM topped the previous season by picking up two top-fives and three top 10s in just the first 10 races.
Yes, the top-five finishes came at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, a style of racing in which Almirola has always excelled. His lone Cup win came at Daytona three years ago. The more impressive part was that the other top 10 came at Richmond Raceway.
The cars RPM brought to the track looked better as a whole, as Almirola placed in the top 20 in eight of the first 10 races and never finished worse than 27th. In comparison, in 2016, the No. 43 only finished in the top 20 15 times over the course of the entire year.
Momentum was building at Petty’s team, until one horrific night at Kansas Speedway.
Joey Logano and Danica Patrick wrecked and the oil leaked from their machines prevented Almirola from missing the wreck or slowing down. Upon contact, the back of the No. 43 lifted off of the ground and slammed back down to earth, fracturing Almirola’s T5 vertebra in the process.
Almirola was sidelined for the next seven races while he recovered. Regan Smith stepped in as the substitute for the following two points races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway, but was let go after netting an average finish of 28th place. Regardless, Smith was still thrilled about the opportunity.
And one last thing, I just ran a race in the King's famous 43, that's freaking cool!!!!
— Regan Smith (@ReganSmith) May 21, 2017
The team turned to then-XFINITY Series regular Darrell Wallace Jr., who became the first African American to compete in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since Bill Lester in 2006.
— Richard Petty Motorsports (@RPMotorsports) June 11, 2017
Wallace piloted the No. 43 in four of the next five races (road racing ringer Billy Johnson drove the car to a 22nd-place finish at Sonoma) and improved in each showing.
Wallace went from multiple pit road penalties and fainting on pit road after his 26th-place finish in his debut at Pocono Raceway, to placing in 11th at Kentucky Speedway at a point in the year when Ford was struggling to keep up.
Almirola was then cleared to return for the second half of the season. However, the next 12 races were mired with inconsistency. RPM cracked the top 20 four times over that span but had an average finish of 23rd and finished off the lead lap in six of those races.
It was also during that span that RPM faced a plethora of problems away from the track. Smithfield announced it would leave the team for Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 and take Almirola with it. The splitting turned into a nasty war of words, as Petty spoke out against the sponsor, saying that it had broken a handshake deal with him. Smithfield responded by essentially calling Petty a liar and saying it had told RPM multiple times that performance needed to improve.
The two sides eventually settled their differences and Smithfield will appear on the No. 43 in some capacity in 2018.
After the drama was over, RPM was left with no driver, primary sponsors, or manufacturer lined up for the following year. Many wondered if the No. 43 would still be on the circuit in 2018. The team would likely deny it, but there is no way the feud and the fear of the unknown did not wear down the RPM staff and affect performance.
The pieces finally started coming together in October when RPM announced Wallace would return to the No. 43 as the primary driver. Click ‘n’ Close would join as a primary sponsor for three races (and maybe more) to join returning backers STP and Air Force.
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) October 25, 2017
The on-track results improved simultaneously. Almirola notched another top-five at Talladega before scoring a redemptive ninth-place result in his first return to Kansas since his horrific wreck at the track. Petty and Almirola finished their time together with the same fire they began 2017 with. The No. 43 finished in the top 20 in each of the final six races of the year, with one top five and three top 10s.
Almirola finished the season 29th in the standings, ahead of four drivers who started every race. The No. 43 placed 24th in the owner standings, two spots higher than the previous season.
Overall, RPM was more competitive than it was in 2016. But it could have been even better had the distractions been avoided.
Looking ahead to 2018, the team recently announced it would switch to Chevrolet. It will move its shop onto the Richard Childress Racing campus, race ECR Engines and form a technical alliance with RCR. The switch comes at an opportune time, as the Camaro that Chevy is debuting next season is expected to give the manufacturer a boost on the track.
Despite all the changes, one thing that will remain at RPM is crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who has served in some capacity with the team since late 2012, calling the shots for the No. 43.
Will this new lineup at Petty result in a year of further improvement in 2018? Or will all of the changes hold the team back? It’ll be a key storyline to watch as Wallace runs for Rookie of the Year against William Byron.