By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
2014 was a special season for Aric Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola recorded his first career victory in a rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, and as a result Richard Petty Motorsports had a driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in the organization’s history.
Almirola started the Chase with a blown an engine at Chicago in the first round, which doomed his chances of advancing, but it honestly looked like the team and driver were on the verge of making some noise.
The No. 43 team had secured a great sponsor in Smithfield, which had increased their investment in the team from year to year. Also the organization was making huge strides to bolster it’s staff to compete with the big dogs of the sport. On paper RPM looked primed to contend.
Since then, that paper — on which all of the tangibles about the RPM team were scribbled — has been crumbled into a ball and tossed into a trash can.
Almirola competed admirably in 2015, but narrowly missed a Chase berth. Ultimately Almirola would settle for a 17th-place finish in the year-end standings. It wasn’t a total failure, but it was certainly a step back from his coming out season the year before.
2016 on the other hand, has been a complete disaster.
Almirola had finished inside the top-10 13 times between 2014 and 2015. He was becoming a familiar face in post-race interviews and weekly teleconferences. Through 26 races this season, Almirola has yet to register his first top-10 and he has completely fallen off the face of the Earth.
As we head into the final 10 races of the year, Almirola finds himself mired 27th in the championship standings. Without a doubt, Almirola and the entire No. 43 are the biggest disappointment of this 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
As a result of the abysmal effort this year, the organization has been left to do some soul searching.
It was announced this week that Trent Owens, who has served as Almirola’s crew chief since that magical 2014 season, has been assigned to a new role within the team. Effective immediately Drew Blickensderfer, of former Roush Fenway Racing fame, will take over the perch atop the pit box of the No. 43 team.
Blickensderfer now has the unenviable task of finding gains in the performance of the No. 43 team over the next 10 races. Perhaps Blickensderfer can find some speed and begin making up some ground that his team has lost on the competition over the last year.
“We are continuing to analyze every part of our organizations and make adjustments where needed,” said Brian Moffitt, Chief Executive Office, Richard Petty Motorsports in a team press release. “We’ve made significant investments in both teams, and the results for the No. 43 team have not been what we expected. By making this change now, we hope that Drew (Blickensderfer) can begin momentum to improving on-track performance and get the team in a good place for the 2017 season.”
Hopefully for Almirola and Blickensderfer, this time next year I will be writing about them being in the Chase and being the most improved team in the garage area.