Richard Petty Motorsports left the Michigan International Speedway on Sunday afternoon gaining ground on "The Chase", NASCAR's 10-race playoff.
The teams came into the two-mile track having to figure out how a new high-downforce package, that teams had only raced once at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway- a very different track than the two-mile, banked Michigan oval- would affect the racing.
Sam Hornish, Jr. and the No. 9 Transportation Impact Ford figured out the new package the quickest. Hornish was fast on Friday and qualified 15th. Hornish was one of the best on the track making passes during the race as well. Only a loose condition on the final restart cost him a better finish than 19th.
Aric Almirola and the No. 43 Armour Ford team had more challenges. Almirola had a stomach virus that forced him to have very limited time in the car on Friday. Feeling better on Saturday, Almirola and the team couldn't find the speed they needed in the No. 43. Finally, during the race on Sunday, they hit on a setup that allowed Almirola to finish 14th. This finish, along with a bad finish by Clint Bowyer, has put the No. 43 team within striking distance of a Chase spot with three races left before the field of 16 cars and drivers is set.
Matt Kenseth won the race. A recap of Sunday's race follows:
Aric Almirola, No. 43 Armour Ford Team
After battling a stomach virus early in the weekend, Aric Almirola started Sunday's race from the 30th position and fought a loose No. 43 Armour Ford from the drop of the green flag. In a race where the No. 43 team needed a good finish, and teams above the Chase cutoff to have a poor one, the pressure was high. Midway through the race, Clint Bowyer went spinning, thus opening the door for the No. 43 team to make up points. The team worked through multiple adjustments and Almirola finished 14th. He is now just 23 points behind Bowyer in the battle for the final playoff spot.
Almirola started the 400-mile race from the 30th position. A caution on the first lap found the No. 43 Armour Ford in the 22nd spot. Without much time to feel out the handling of the car, the team stayed out and restarted 22nd. Almirola raced as high as 20th and held the 24th spot when the yellow flag displayed on Lap 11 for debris. He told the crew the Armour Ford was extremely loose and felt like it was really high off of the racetrack. Crew Chief Trent Owens called for four tires and made a big swing to lower the car and tighten it up.
With few cars pitting, Almirola started near the back of the field but worked up to the 27th position by the Competition Caution on Lap 22. Reporting that the changes were a big improvement, Almirola said the No. 43 Armour Ford was very loose in traffic. Since the team couldn't fuel the car before the Competition Caution, Owens called the No. 43 down pit road for fuel and adjustments. Almirola restarted 24th on Lap 25. Still really loose, he made a trackbar adjustment in the car and continued to race in the Top-30.
By Lap 50, it was time for the team's first green-flag pit stop. Owens called for a four-tire stop and chassis adjustment to the left front. As the field cycled through green-flag pit stops, Almirola raced a lap down in the 27th position. A debris caution on Lap 73 allowed the team to continue work on the Armour Ford, and they made more chassis adjustments during a four-tire pit stop.
Almirola restarted 25th, one lap down, and raced hard to make up spots to race for the "Lucky Dog". He raced into the 22nd position before the next round of green-flag pit stops. Owens elected to pit on Lap 115 for four tires and an air pressure adjustment. A debris caution came out seven laps later with the No. 43 Ford in the 23rd spot. The team stayed out under caution and restarted in the "Lucky Dog" spot.
Just one lap after the restart, the team's day started looking up. Bowyer was sent spinning into the wall and forced to go to the garage for repairs, opening the door for the team to gain points on the Chase transfer spot. Also, Almirola held the "Lucky Dog" position when the caution came out and got his lap back. The team made a four-tire pit stop and restarted at the tail end of the field in 19th.
The No. 43 Armour Ford handled the best it had all day and Almirola posted his fastest lap times of the race. Another caution on Lap 137 allowed the team to catch up to the rest of the lead lap cars. They pit for four fresh tires and restarted 19th. Almirola quickly worked into the Top-15 and held the position as the field began green-flag pit stops. Having pit during the last caution, the No. 43 Armour team could stay out longer than most.
Knowing how important each point is, Owens kept the No. 43 on track to lead a lap and gain a bonus point. On Lap 176, he called for a two-tire pit stop for right-side, scuff tires. Almirola returned to the track in 15th. A caution on Lap 184 set up the final run of the race. The No. 43 team had one set of sticker tires left and elected to put them on for the final laps. Almirola restarted 16th with 12 laps remaining. He drove into the 14th spot with five laps to go but didn't have enough time to make up ground on the 13th-place car. He finished 14th and tallied his 12th Top-15 finish of the season.
"We may have finished 14th today, but it felt like a win after the weekend we had," said Almirola. "Everyone worked really hard to get the car where we needed it. Thanks to Matt Crafton for helping us out on Friday dialing in the new rules package. Today was what we needed to do. We made the best out of our situation and made up some good ground in points. We started the year with a goal to be consistent and just scored our 12th Top-15."
Sam Hornish, No. 9 Transportation Impact Ford
Sam Hornish and the No. 9 Transportation Impact Ford team finished 19th in Sunday's 400-mile race at the Michigan International Speedway, but that finish doesn't define the strong day that the team had. After the race, Hornish commented that if the race had been 160 laps instead of 200, we'd be talking about a Top-10 or better finish. This was as the case as the team had a vibration that forced Hornish to pit twice in the last quarter of the race and lost track position.
Hornish started 15th, and although the car was really "free" racing around other cars, he was 19th before the team came down pit road during the Lap 20 Competition Caution. Knowing that track position was critical, Crew Cheif Kevin Manion elected to give Hornish two right-side tires and fuel. Hornish was able to maintain his 19th position during the next run.
The team came down pit road on Lap 58 to take four tires and to help tighten the car for Hornish. While strong in Turns 2 and Turn 3, Hornish needed more stability in the other turns. On Lap 65, Hornish said the car was getting better, but didn't start off a run as well as he needed. Still, the car was really fast on a longer run.
After pit stops cycled through, Hornish was the first car a lap down. A Lap 71 caution gave the team the Lucky Dog and they were quickly back on the lead lap. The team took the time to put in a spring rubber into the rear of the car and that adjustment also helped the car.
Hornish raced to 15th by Lap 100 and was up to third before having to pit for fuel on Lap 117. The car was its best during this run and the No. 9 pit crew gave Hornish a fast stop with four fresh tires and fuel. Soon after the team had pit, the caution waved. Hornish took the "wave around" and restarted 19th. After only a few laps, the caution came out and Hornish got fuel and four tires on Lap 127. With 70 laps left, Hornish was 16th and in a good position on fuel and tires.
The Transportation Impact team raced to 13th on the restart before another quick yellow waved. The next run, Hornish developed a vibration and told the team he was going to pit early. On Lap 165 Hornish came down pit road for four tires. He returned to the track and the vibration was worse. He did, however, settle into the run and with 25 lap to go was running 18th.
A late race caution, Hornish took only two scuffed tires. On the restart, 13th in the running order, the car was really loose and Hornish brushed the wall. The contact developed a small tire rub and Hornish had to be very protective of the right-rear tire. He held on to finish 19th.
"We took two tires on that last stop and apparently one of them was bad because we got into the wall there right before the last lap," said Hornish after Sunday's race. "We were able to get it far enough without losing too many spots. If I hadn't hit the wall, we might have been 18th, I don't know. I think we only lost one spot really. We only pitted that strategy because we started getting a vibration on the front tire. We were in our window and some of the leaders started pitting and I didn't want to take a chance of blowing out a tire trying to make it somewhere we needed to be. We pitted a little early and that didn't hurt us at all. The strategy, we took the wave around once, if we didn't have to start at the back because of the lucky dog then we probably would have been able to stay on the lead lap all day. As it was we had to take the wave around once and our Transportation Impact Ford Fusion was pretty good on the long run. That is where we really seemed to shine."