Wednesday, Feb 01

It is going to be a busy few weeks for executives at Richard Petty Motorsports.

On Saturday afternoon, the organization announced that the No. 9 Ford Fusion is vacant for the 2015 season. Driving for the team since 2011, Marcos Ambrose is opting to leave RPM to take his family back to his home in Australia.  In lieu of this decision, the team now has the task of finding a new driver. But that might not be the team’s greatest challenge.

While Ambrose is departing a team that he has won a pair of races with, his sponsor is doing the same. Black and Decker is reportedly joining forces with Joe Gibbs Racing, according to Motorsport.com’s Lee Spencer. Just weeks ago, JGR announced that ARRIS will be sponsoring Carl Edwards’ No. 19 Toyota in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for 17 events. It is apparent that Stanley will sponsor Edwards, but Dewalt will sponsor Matt Kenseth after they backed him from his days in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with Robbie Reiser in 1999 until 2009.

With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the possible candidates that could be Aric Almirola’s teammate at the team that bars Richard Petty’s name on its logo.

  • Sam Hornish Jr.: It appears that Hornish is the top choice for the organization. Although he is racing on a part-time basis for a Toyota team in the Nationwide Series, he had plenty of success with Team Penske and Ford in 2013. With Ford having a clear presence in this decision, they will want someone that has a good relationship with them. However, Hornish has not run a full season in the Cup Series since 2010. Now, he is clearly a better driver. It is obvious that he is going to entertain this offer – if he gets it. But he will need to find at least some sponsorship, and that has been an immense struggle for a former Indianapolis 500 winner when it truly shouldn’t be.
  • David Ragan: Ragan has driven for Ford throughout his career. Besides that, he even owns a Ford dealership. He lost his ride at Roush Fenway Racing because UPS opted to sponsor Carl Edwards instead of him and he couldn’t find another company willing to back him, even after showing that he can get into Victory Lane. Since then, it has been nearly three years of immense struggles for Ragan as he is racing for Front Row Motorsports. FRM has a minor alliance with Roush, but it isn’t enough to help him contend for top 20s on a weekly basis. Moving over to RPM would give him a chance to go back to consistently racing inside of the top 15. He has been able to bring plenty of new companies into the sport with his underfunded team. The past three years have been tough, but a job with RPM could have him back in the spotlight and contending for a spot in the Chase with Almirola.
  • Parker Kligerman: Kligerman was left without a ride when Swan Racing shut down a few months ago. Even though he recently tested an Indy Lights car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, he would certainly jump at what would arguably be the best opportunity of his racing career. Clearly a talented driver, RPM could help develop him like they did with Almirola. Given the opportunity, Kligerman could race inside of the top 20 in his first year with the team. Albeit he hasn’t been able to find much funding over the course of his career, he has run well when given opportunities in top equipment. If the team can’t sign Ragan or Hornish, he would certainly be a perfect fit for them.
  • Elliott Sadler: It appears that Sadler won’t be staying at JGR in the Nationwide Series next year. He has said over and over again that he wants to be back in the Cup Series. Last year, he had a minor stint with Michael Waltrip Racing; improving each race he ran for them. If One Main Financial would back him, there is a possibility that he could rejoin the team he once raced for. He has had some success in the Nationwide Series with three different teams, yet the money from the sponsor could help him get back to the Cup Series.
  • David Gilliland: Like Ragan, Gilliland has been racing on one-year deals for FRM. When I spoke with him at Dover at the end of May, he stated that he is working on a contract extension. However, he would also be a good fit at RPM. He has also helped bring in new sponsors into the sport, such as Love’s Travel Stops, and there is the slight chance that they would move over to RPM with him if they are willing to spend more money. He has never proven that he can win races in NASCAR’s highest division, but in a sport where money means everything – Gilliland could join this team in a highly unlikely scenario.
  • Ryan Truex: RPM signed Truex to a developmental deal last year. It is clear that racing with BK Racing is not the best of situations for him. However, Petty told me that they are still working to make a package for him – at least in the Nationwide Series. Getting all of this bad luck out of the way this year might not be the worst of ideas. If he can get some sponsorship, we might see RPM put him in the No. 9 car.
  • Michael McDowell: Throughout his career, McDowell never really had a great shot at being competitive. However, he continuously proves that he is capable of running well when given the equipment to do so. If K-LOVE were to make the move with him, McDowell would finally have a chance at being a top 20 driver. Like Gilliland, it all depends on whether or not the team can put a package together for the other drivers. However, with someone as genuine as McDowell, there might not be a better guy off of the track to add to a team with a genuine owner.
  • Brian Scott: Scott is backed by his family’s company, Shore Lodge. He has been racing well with Richard Childress Racing, and has made a few starts in the Cup Series. If RCR can’t find room for him since Ty Dillon should be moving to the Cup Series in 2016, he might have to find another organization to call home. Switching manufacturers should not be a factor for him since he raced for Toyota for a few years before he joined RCR. Moreover, he might want to stay with the team and fight for a title. But the funding should be there if he wants to make the jump and race for 20th-25th in Cup. 

Marcos Ambrose needs a victory. There is no way around it. In order to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he must get rid of the egg in the win column, or he will need to move up a few spots in the standings.

This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the road course in upstate New York. The only track where Ambrose has recorded victories in NASCAR’s top-tier division, Watkins Glen has by far been his top track. In six races at the Glen, Ambrose has five top-fives.

“We both know we have a chance to win this race to lock into the Chase and that is a big thing for our team and would make our year,” Ambrose said in a press conference on Friday morning. “It is an important weekend no doubt. You have to try to downplay that as best as you can coming in. We are excited. We had a good test up here last week and felt like the car was a repeat of last year and we had a fast car last year too. We have our fingers crossed that it comes off the truck here pretty quick and we can get back down to business and work on starting in the front.”

Arguably, this is going to be the most important weekend of the 37-year-old’s NASCAR career. With rumors circling around Roger Penske and Dick Johnson teaming up to form a V8 Supercar team in Ambrose’s home country of Australia, he might just be on the move. Although he claims to have not made a decision on his future, it appears as if he is leaning away from leaving NASCAR competition on a full-time basis unless his Richard Petty Motorsports team can find some consistency before the season concludes.

“It’s going to be up to Marcos. I don’t know if he’s made a complete decision as far as where he is going to be. I know he wants to run some, but I don’t know if he wants to run all the time or not. We ain’t got a clue yet,” said team co-owner Richard Petty. “It (the season) is a little bit better than it was last year. We got a long way to go. We have one car in the Chase, but we still have to run well. Just because you are in the Chase doesn’t mean much.”

If he opts not to return to full-time competition in NASCAR, Petty said the team might run him on a part-time basis. The V8 Supercar season starts around the same time that the NASCAR season does, but the season continues on until early December – leaving very few options for Ambrose if he wants to do both.

“You know what you need from the race car to get to victory lane and that inner confidence to do what you need to do,” Ambrose said. “My past history is no guarantee at the future. That is the way I look at it. Each weekend is unique to itself and this weekend in particular, already there are some different angles that we haven’t had to deal with before like the new ride height and downforce rules as well as fuel mileage and how that comes into play which will be different compared to last year.”

Richard Petty Motorsports is still finalizing the team’s plans for the 2015 season. Dakoda Armstrong has been piloting the No. 43 Ford Mustang for the team this year, but has yet to finish inside of the top-10.

Last year, RPM signed two young drivers – Ryan Truex and Corey LaJoie to developmental deals within the organization. Truex has yet to race for the Ford organization, and LaJoie has run just one event with them (Homestead of 2013). But even though they haven’t done much with the team, the organization’s co-owner, Richard Petty, is attempting to put together a package for both drivers.

“We’re working on a couple of deals to try to get them running this year in Nationwide. We are trying to set up some stuff in Nationwide next year. So far, we are gaining on it – we just haven’t got there,” Petty said on Friday morning.

Currently, Truex is a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender for BK Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Notably – the 22-year-old is racing for a Toyota team, albeit he is still under contract with RPM. After missing three events this year, Truex is 37th in points with a best finish of 30th at Martinsville Speedway.

LaJoie, however, has run just one event in 2014. He raced at Kentucky Speedway with Biagi DenBeste Racing.

It might be a time for change. Marcos Ambrose appears to be leaning on leaving Richard Petty Motorsports for a deal in Australia with Team Penske in a partnership with Dick Johnson.

Prior to racing in NASCAR, Ambrose raced in the Australian V8 Supercar division, and was extremely successful in the process. However, a decision has not been made by the 37-year-old, and the team is set to prepare for the 2015 season.

“It’s going to be up to Marcos. I don’t know if he’s made a complete decision as far as where he is going to be. I know he wants to run some, but I don’t know if he wants to run all the time or not. We ain’t got a clue yet,” said team co-owner Richard Petty in the garage area on Friday afternoon.

With Aric Almirola's victory at Daytona International Speedway, the entire team has high expectations for both drivers. As they move forward, the team hopes to contend for a win. Possibly, his future might be determined based on how the No. 9 Ford races at Watkins Glen next weekend - Ambrose's best track. 

“That was just a good deal for all of RPM. It helped the No. 9 car and the 43 team. We know we could do it. Winning breeds winning. Hopefully, this will get everybody up and going.”

This year, Ambrose has two top-fives and four top-10s. But he sits 19th in points with an average finish of 18.6, which ranks as his third best in that category since making the jump to full-time Sprint Cup Series racing in 2009.

 

The No. 43 is back in Victory Lane. It is the first time the legendary car number made famous by Richard Petty has won its first race since 1999 at the Martinsville Speedway, and it did so in an untraditional way.

Aric Almirola drove his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford to the front of the pack after the Coke Zero 400 was postponed to Sunday morning after being originally scheduled for Saturday evening. As the rain came, Almirola held off the competition in one of the wildest races of the year. The rain was on and off during Sunday’s event, but it did not hold off long enough as NASCAR opted to end the race after having multiple red flags.

This is Almirola’s first career victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 125 starts. RPM has won their first event since Marcos Ambrose scored the victory at Watkins Glen in 2012. The team has not had a driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup since 2009 with Kasey Kahne, and now it appears Almirola will be the first one since for RPM.

Brian Vickers came home in the runner-up position for Michael Waltrip Racing. Entering Daytona, his best finish of the year was fourth (Texas and Talladega). Austin Dillon scored his first career top-five finish as he ended the rainy day in the fifth position. Michael McDowell earned his best career finish as he ended the Coke Zero 400 in seventh. Terry Labonte finished 11th in his final race at the Daytona International Speedway. Alex Bowman earned a career-best finish of 13th while racing for BK Racing.

While approaching the competition caution on Lap 20, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the second car on the high line when he got loose at the exit of Turn 4. Jeff Gordon tried to avoid him, but in doing so – got into Tony Stewart, causing the big one. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, A.J. Allmendinger received the most damage in the wreck, but other drivers also had minor bruises to their vehicles. Johnson recorded his first DNF since blowing an engine at Michigan in August of 2013, and it is the first time he is out of a race for an accident for the first time since Atlanta in September of 2012.

“We had the outside lane working there and it seemed like some of the guys were struggling on the bottom and the middle and we got a little loose on the top. I save it and everything was good and then all of a sudden we got hit in the left rear. I am not real sure what happened,” Stenhouse Jr. said after the accident.

On Lap 97, Kasey Kahne got loose on the backstretch after Greg Biffle got into him – causing mayhem entering Turn 3. Kyle Busch flipped during the wreck, and landed on his roof. The red flag was displayed for approximately five minutes to clear up the wreck which included 26 cars.

“David Ragan gave me a big push and then Kasey (Kahne) got up and went to the middle and ran into the back of the 13 car and slowed way up and I hit the back of the 5. We weren’t lined up. He moved down for some reason when he hit the 13 or something. It was just a chain reaction,” Biffle said.

 “I don’t know what happened. From where I was at all heck broke loose all at once and tore up a bunch of good race cars. I am proud of our guys. Our Love’s Travel Shop Ford was fast all day and sometimes that stuff just happens and this time we were in the middle of it,” pole sitter, Gilliland said after leading five laps on Sunday.

After leading 11 laps in the race, Jamie McMurray was also involved in the accident. McMurray said he saw what was happening in front of him, but there was just not enough time for him to react. His No. 1 Chevrolet went airborne after getting hit in the rear-end on the backstretch. 

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