Wednesday May 25th, 2016 9:01AM

Richard Petty Motorsports off to strong start after off season upgrades

By Jenna Fryer, AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, NC - Richard Petty, still mourning the death of his wife, skipped the short trip to Martinsville Speedway to watch his team compete.

At the track located a little over an hour south from Petty's famed race shop, his two drivers set out to capture a victory in honor of the late Lynda Petty and their boss, "The King."

Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola fell short of driving their way into victory lane on Sunday. But for just the fourth time in 77 races as teammates, both Richard Petty Motorsports drivers finished inside the top 10.

Ambrose led 22 laps en route to his season-best finish of fifth and Almirola was eighth. It marked the second time in three races the duo both finished inside the top 10, and showed the RPM has turned a corner in its bid to recapture some of its glory days.

"We have a brand here at our race team and it is Richard Petty Motorsports and it is 'The King' and all that he has accomplished. We want to live up to that," said Almirola. "We want to get back to those successful ways that they have had for so many years. Obviously we have been through some tough times and we are clawing our way back to where we need to be and we see the light now.

"It was pretty dark a few years ago, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and if we continue to run like me and Marcos have run, in the top five and top 10 and challenging and leading races and challenging to win races, you can only do that so many times before you start winning races."

Petty, a Hall of Famer, won 200 races and seven championships for Petty Enterprises. The organization has won just three races since John Andretti's 1999 victory and went through a 10-year losing streak.

The organization has not won since 2012, but an off season commitment from sponsor Smithfield helped RPM add personnel and invest in equipment, testing, and research and development.

Those gains have been evident through the first six races of the season. Ambrose is 14th and Almirola is 26th, in part because of two accidents Almirola was involved in. Each driver has two top-10 finishes, Ambrose has two top fives and Almirola finished a career-best third at Bristol.

It's the best start in seven Sprint Cup seasons for Ambrose, and it comes a year after Almirola raced out of the gates, when RPM was ill-equipped to have both teams competing at the same level.

"I am never happy when we go to the race track and the two cars are as distant apart as they were last year with Aric running in the top 10 and Marcos struggling and crashing and just not finishing races and being where we needed to be," said RPM competition director Sammy Johns. "This year, with the additional engineering we have added and the personnel and equipment, we are able to have both cars running together on the race track and working the best together that I have ever seen the two of them work on the race track.

Ambrose credits the increased commitment to testing, and the development of his relationship with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who joined RPM in late 2012, and spent this past off season making personnel moves that have strengthened the team.

"This business is all about details. You aren't going to do it with a 25-pound spring change on race day; you will do it by everybody having the attention to detail and commitment to being the best they can," Ambrose said. "You have to rally the troops around your team and there are a lot of people that play a part in our success on Sunday and we are very mindful of that, and Drew is great at getting people up and getting them committed."

Almirola has a new crew chief in Trent Owens, who guided Kyle Larson in the Nationwide Series last season at Turner Scott Motorsports. Although Owens is Richard Petty's nephew, Almirola and Johns had to work hard to lure him to RPM.

"He was being courted by a few other teams but we were able to get it done and we got him over here on our team and I feel like we stole the best crew chief out of the Nationwide garage," Almirola said.

If RPM can sustain this performance, win a race or two and maybe even a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, the drivers believe it would be a significant payback to Petty.

"This is the one place I have come to drive a race car that made me feel like part of the family," Almirola said. "That is the way they run their operation and race team. It has been a family run business since the '40s and '50s and it is still that way today. Richard comes in here and puts his arm around everybody and makes them feel like they are a part of the Petty family."
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