By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Brian Scott knows he’s in a pretty good place.
In 2016, the 28-year-old Idaho native will compete in a loaded field for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors with the logo of Richard Petty Motorsports emblazoned on his chest.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Scott, speaking Wednesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “Richard Petty: Just when you say his name you think of so many things. You think 200 wins. You think seven championships. You think about the guy in the cowboy hat – the ‘King.’
“I’ve had the opportunity to drive for Joe Gibbs. I’ve had the opportunity to drive for Richard Childress, and now I have the opportunity to drive for Richard Petty. I don’t think there’s a lot of people who can say that. So, to be around him and Dale Inman (Hall of Fame crew chief) in the shop and to try to be a sponge and soak in everything they say – at the same time being honored to carry the Richard Petty logo and name – that is pretty special.”
Although Scott is without a top-10 finish in 17 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts (his best showing was 12th at Kansas last season), Petty liked what he saw from him in the NASCAR XFINITY Series (20 career top fives).
“We feel like he’s at the age that if he’s ever going to do anything, now’s the time to do it,” Petty said. “He’s got the experience on all the race tracks and he’s got the burning desire.”
Scott’s new crew chief, Chris Heroy, has been impressed with his driver’s maturity.
“He’s at the shop every day and he’s an impressive kid,” said Heroy, quick to correct himself. “He’s not a kid. He’s a grown man. It’s the way he carries himself, the way he leads the team and the way he wants to make this deal different in terms of how it’s run, how we model ourselves and how we treat each other. I’ve (already) got a lot of respect for him.”
Whether Scott can win a battle with the likes of Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher for 2016 Rookie of the Year honors remains to be seen. But he believes that a focus on consistency – an ongoing theme in the Petty camp – will carry the day. If he can manage lead-lap finishes and attain Competition Director Sammy Johns’ weekly goal of finishing in the top 15, then honors like Rookie of the Year, he’s convinced, will take care of themselves.
Still, his eye is on the competition.
“It is a talented (rookie) group and it’s very hard to handicap it before we’ve actually been on the race track,” Scott said. “It will even be hard to handicap after Daytona.
“I think a lot of people probably feel that Chase Elliott is the favorite, going into the Hendrick organization and the 24 car – such an established team with a record of success. But I like flying under the radar a little bit and I feel with what I’ve seen in the shop and what (our guys) are capable of, we can surprise.”
Scott believes he’ll benefit from the expertise of Heroy, who helped Kyle Larson win Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.
“I feel like he’s an incredibly talented guy,” Scott said. “He brings a lot of experience working with a young driver. He was with Kyle Larson in 2014 when they won Rookie of the Year, then continued that growth in 2015. So, he has that experience of working with a guy that’s coming into the Sprint Cup Series that has a lot to figure out.”
While teammate Aric Almirola returns to pilot the iconic No. 43 Ford with Smithfield Farms as the primary sponsor, Scott – replacing Sam Hornish Jr. in the RPM lineup – will help Petty resurrect the No. 44 as part of its brand. An immediate benefit for RPM are the sponsorships of Albertsons and Shore Lodge that Scott brings with him.
Almirola made the Chase in 2014 by virtue of a victory at Daytona in July. Although he was more consistent in 2015, he just missed a second Chase appearance, finishing 17th in points. He wishes he could have thrown out last-place finishes at Daytona and Loudon.
“Going into this year, I think it’s still about consistency,” Almirola said. “It’s still about showing up at the track with fast cars and getting the most out of your day. If we have a top-15 car, we need to try to finish top 15 with it. If we have a top-five car, we need to finish top five. And if we have a car capable of winning, we need to try to win with it. That’s our goal: to try to make the most out of every weekend.”
Relying on its technical alliance with Ford and Roush Fenway Racing, RPM is also becoming more independent. Petty resumed hanging its own bodies last year and will build its own chassis this season.
“You don’t have a whole lot of control when you go to a restaurant,” Almirola observes. “But if you make your food at home, you have a little more control. It’s going to taste how you want it. You know what seasonings you like and you know the flavor you like. When you have control (of the ingredients), you have a better chance of controlling the outcome, and I feel like that’s where we’ve gotten to.
“A few years ago, we relied on everybody else to make our race cars fast. If they weren’t, there was nothing we could do about it. We could complain, but we didn’t have the manpower or the resources to change it. Now, because of the people we have and the sponsors we’ve got, we have the ability to change it. It’s the way Petty Enterprises used to be.”
Johns thinks that control will make a difference.
“Being able to get every detail out of the chassis that we can – making sure that we’re getting what the crew chiefs want and building the lightest, strongest cars we can build. We felt like Aric and (crew chief) Trent (Owens) were able to get their cars handling and driving the way Aric wanted, week in, week out, but just our raw speed was not there. So, we have to provide a better tool to work with, and that’s a faster race car that is going to be lighter with more downforce.”
Image: Bob Leverone / NASCAR via Getty Images