Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports was the subject of the weekly NASCAR Teleconference Tuesday afternoon (July 3) in advance of this weekend’s race at Daytona International Speedway.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO REPRESENT THE U.S. AIR FORCE THIS WEEKEND AT DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY ON INDEPENDENCE DAY WEEKEND, AND DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL GUESTS JOINING YOUR TEAM THIS WEEKEND? ARIC ALMIROLA, No. 43 US Air Force Ford Fusion – “We do have a special guest joining us this weekend. General Clarke will be with us this weekend. It always means a lot to me whether it’s 4th of July weekend or any other weekend, to represent the U.S. Air Force. It’s a big deal to represent our military and to basically represent the people that fight for our freedom on a daily basis. So, you know, it means a lot to me to represent them. I grew up on an Air Force base. I was born on Eglin Air Force base and I realize and know the sacrifices that the families make for us to be free and to live in a free country. So it means a lot to me to be able to represent them and drive the U.S. Air Force car. The last time I drove the Air Force car, we qualified on the pole for the Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte for the Coke 600. So hopefully we can carry that momentum into this weekend, and we’ll go down to Daytona and have a good weekend.”
WHAT KIND OF IMPROVEMENT HAVE YOU GUYS SEEN SINCE MIKE FORD JOINED THE TEAM? DO YOU FEEL A SHIFT IN THE TEAM? DO YOU FEEL IT’S BEEN POINTED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION? “We do. The last couple of weeks we haven’t gotten the result we’re looking for, but everything leading up to that has been great. Working with Mike has been really great. Mike’s a great crew chief and a great leader, and he’s really smart. These last few weeks we’ve been trying some stuff, trying to get better. We haven’t really hit on what we need, but it’s all in an effort to try to get better. We know that and we realize that. Sometimes it’s not fun to run bad, but sometimes you learn kind of what not to do. So the last couple of weeks we’ve learned that and I feel like since he’s come on board at Richard Petty Motorsports our organization as a whole has gotten better , not just the 43, but I feel like the 9′s performance has gotten better too. I really enjoy working with him. His experience has helped me a lot. He helps me a lot more than just being a crew chief.”
HOW MUCH DOES THAT HELP YOU TO HAVE SUCH A VETERAN GUY LIKE THAT MAYBE KIND OF BEING THE HEAD COACH? “Yeah, exactly, that’s right. It helps me a lot. It helps me tremendously to have his expertise and experience. I’m showing up to a lot of these racetracks for the first time in a Cup car, so I have no idea what to expect, and how the racetrack is going to change from practice to qualifying and then from qualifying to the race. I’m really leaning on Mike and relying on his experience to know what adjustments to make in the car after practice is over to get it prepared and to know where the racetrack is going to go for the race and stuff like that. I’ve really leaned on him hard to help me with that kind of stuff. I think as we build our notebook together and go back to racetracks together, and I’ll get to go back to a racetrack for a second time, I think we’ll be a lot better. Right now we just kind of feel like we’re filling our notebook with notes. Some are good notes, some are bad notes, but you need notes. Right now every time we show up to a racetrack, we have a blank sheet of paper. So I’ve been relying on him pretty heavily for information.”
HOW MUCH MORE COMFORTABLE ARE YOU IN THE CAR NOW THAT YOU’VE HAD 17 RACES UNDER YOUR BELT? “A lot more comfortable. I feel like I show up to the race track every weekend, and I know when I walk over to that 43 car, that’s my car, and my group of guys. It’s a lot different than what it was at the beginning of the year. In the beginning of the year I was just trying to learn the guys’ names and figure out each week when we show up to the racetrack what to expect. I feel like I have a lot better understanding of that now. I feel a lot more comfortable in the car. I feel like I said just a few minutes ago, I feel like when I start going back to these racetracks for a second time I’ll have a lot better understanding of what to look for. When I go out to practice, rather than learning the racetrack, I will already know the racetrack, but I’ll be working on my race car to figure out what I need to go fast. That will be the biggest difference is just going back to these race tracks for a second time. When I get on the racetrack, I know what I’m looking for.”
DO YOU DRAW A LINE OR MAYBE A CORRELATION BETWEEN THE CONFIDENCE AND COMPETENCE THAT SAY AN AIR FORCE PILOT HAS AND WHAT YOU DO IN A RACE CAR? “It’s funny I actually talk about that on a pretty regular basis when we have generals and stuff show up at the racetrack. We have a lot of similarities between NASCAR and the Air Force. The pilots put so much of their trust, all of their trust in the mechanics and all the people that are involved in putting those airplanes together for them to go fly around and protect us. They’re putting their lives in other people’s hands to make sure the plane or the jet is put together properly and maintenance properly and all that stuff. It’s a team effort. It’s more than just a pilot. And that’s kind of the same thing that we have in NASCAR. I get in the race car, and it’s my name above the door, but there is a lot that goes on that has to happen correctly for us to go out and perform and perform at a high level. So without good people, good results don’t come. You have to have people you trust and are willing to work hard and to sacrifice time with their families and stuff like that to put a good product on the racetrack. I feel like we have that at Richard Petty Motorsports, and we obviously have that with the U.S. Air Force. So it’s fun to talk about with the generals and stuff that come to the racetrack about how much similarity there is between NASCAR and the military.”
A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO KEVIN HARVICK WAS OVER AT THE AIR FORCE BASE AND THEY TOOK HIM TO SEE A C-130. I JUST WONDER, HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT? HAVE YOU DONE THAT AT ALL? “I have been to a few Air Force bases, I’ve been to MacDill Air Force base, but not this year with the Air Force sponsorship. That would be cool. But I enjoy every chance I getting to and spend time with the guys on the Air Force bases and sign autographs and thank them for everything they do for us.”
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT YOU LEARNED DIFFERENTLY BY GOING BACK INTO THE NATIONWIDE SERIES AND THEN MOVING BACK UP TO THE SPRINT CUP SERIES? “Well, I think really it started for me going back to the Truck Series, really. That’s where I went when the No. 8 car shut down, moved back to the Truck Series and drove for Billy Ballew and Richie Waters there. So going back to the Truck Series and racing every weekend was really my first opportunity to go race and be competitive and race every weekend. Up until then the Nationwide opportunities I had at Gibbs and the Cup opportunities I had with DEI sharing a car with Mark Martin was like a fill in. I’d run the Nationwide car when Denny (Hamlin) didn’t race, and I’d run the Cup car when Mark Martin didn’t race. So that was my first opportunity to race full-time, every weekend, with a team that believed I could be the guy for them and not just race when the other guy wasn’t going to race. I learned a lot leading up to that point and it prepared me to go and race full-time in the Truck Series that year. I felt like being in good equipment and having Richie Waters as my crew chief, and learning how to race week in, and week out with the same guys and learn how to take a fifth place instead of being fourth and third with it, and maximize my points and get the best day that we could. When we had a truck capable of winning, we won a couple of races. That’s where I feel like it all started for me. Learning how to race for a championship at this level and then going Nationwide racing last year for Dale Jr., again, great opportunity, and learning how to be consistent and run as good as we possibly can week-in and week-out, and maximizing our finishes. I felt like that made me a lot better race car driver. Because up until that point it was like every weekend I got to go out and race and basically prove that I was worthy of my job and trying to go out and make the most of that opportunity. And if I did well or I did bad, either way I had two or three weeks to sit and wait until my next race or whatever. So it was a lot different for me to be able to race and have a good weekend and try to carry that momentum into the next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. If I had a bad weekend, it caught me how to forget about it, and go to the racetrack the next weekend and try to put last week behind me and go get a good result that weekend.”
AS A DRIVER, WHAT IS YOUR NEXT GOAL TO ACCOMPLISH? “I think for me it’s just about performing. I want to win a race. I want to win a race at this level. It’s about performance for us. It’s hard. I didn’t expect to come Cup racing and beat Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and those guys every weekend. I knew it was going to be tough, and I had a lot to learn, and I still do. I feel like I was right. It is tough. It’s extremely hard, extremely competitive. The thing that I get excited about is when we have weekends like Charlotte where we qualify on the pole and run good, and then we go to Dover and qualify well and run in the top five and finish sixth. Those are the weekends that I look forward to and trying to have more and more of those. So if we can do that and put ourselves in position to run in the Top 10 on a more regular basis, then we can start worrying about trying to win races.
DO YOU CONSIDER DAYTONA YOUR HOME TRACK, SO TO SPEAK? “I do, yeah. Daytona is like two hours away from Tampa, so I would consider that my home track as far as a NASCAR track is concerned. I grew up and used to go to Daytona. Every Christmas we’d open presents Christmas morning, and by Christmas night we had our truck and trailer loaded with our go-karts and we’d head to Daytona and race go-karts at the municipal stadium since I was 9 or 10 years old. I spent a lot of time over there and would always go over there for the go-kart races. We were usually there for like a week long period. So when we were there, we had our first experiences of seeing the racetrack and driving inside the racetrack and being able to see the surroundings and see how big the place was and realizing that they had a lake inside of a racetrack. Because every race track that I had seen up until that point would probably a dirt track that I went to and watched my grandfather race, or a dirt go-kart track that were all the biggest tracks I’d probably been to up until that point was probably a half mile. So to go to a race track that’s two and a half miles long and being on the inside of it was crazy. I couldn’t even fathom it. I remember my first experience seeing the racetrack. After that my grandfather and my family and stuff would take me over to the 500, and I’d been over to see the Firecracker 400 a few times. So I’d been over there a lot of times to watch the races in the grandstands. I remember my first time going there to race in NASCAR was a really big deal for me. So I always look forward to going to Daytona. For whatever reason, I always have some sort of bad luck there. Something bad always happens to me. I think it’s because I want to win there so bad. Everybody wants to win at Daytona, but I’ve been sitting in those grandstands for so long, that it would mean more to me to win there than anywhere. I have a huge desire to be successful at that place, and for whatever reason it alludes me. Hopefully this weekend that won’t be the case.”
WHEN I THINK OF YOU AND DAYTONA NOT KNOWING YOUR GO-KART BACKGROUND, I THINK OF YOU AND DANICA IN THAT NATIONWIDE SERIES RACE WHERE YOU PUSHED HER RIGHT TO THE FRONT, AND YOU GUYS WERE LIKE A FOOTBALL FIELD AND THEY HAD EVERYBODY. WAS THAT ONE OF THE BIGGER MOMENTS IN YOUR CAREER AS FAR AS NASCAR RACING GOES? “Yeah, maybe. I really thought we had a shot to win that night. That was a huge disappointment for that one to get away from us. You know, I’ve been there and I’ve had opportunities to run well. There again that night, me and her had pushed out to the lead with two laps to go. I think Stewart and Sadler ran us down and got by us. We had just set up to pass them going into turn one on the white flag lap, and they squeezed us up and we got in the fence and got shuffled apart. Then next thing you know the whole pack came and swarmed around us, and we came around turn four, and I ended up crossing the start/finish line in a ball of flames. So, again, another opportunity where I felt like I was going to have a good shot to win or definitely come close, but something happened. I always seem to run well there, and I always seem to have a lot of speed when we show up there and feel like we have an opportunity to win. It just hasn’t happened yet. So I’m looking forward to this weekend.”
RESTRICTOR PLATE RACING AT DAYTONA IS SO QUIRKY, AND YOU’VE BEEN ON THE BAD END OF THE FINISHES UP TO THIS POINT, BUT COULDN’T THAT HAVE JUST AS EASILY FLIPPED FOR YOU THIS WEEKEND WHERE THE OTHER GUY HAS THE BAD LUCK, AND YOU COME OUT OF IT, THE BIG ONE, AND WIN THE RACE? “Yeah, I hope that’s the case. I think for all 43 drivers that leave Charlotte, North Carolina and Daytona and show up for the race, I feel like everybody that shows up there to start the race feels like they have just as good a shot to win. That’s usually how restrictor plate racing is and that’s what the fans love about it. Now with the rules packages, we’re in one big wad, one big pack of cars, inches apart, running 200 miles an hour is exciting. You know that you have as good a shot as anybody to win, but you have just as good a shot to end up upside down with your roof and all four of your wheels and tires ripped off your car. I’ve seen that too and been a part of it. You go down there and try to do the best you can. You go down there prepared with a good car, which I know that Mike Ford and everybody on our 43 Air Force Ford have done, and I know we’ll have a fast car. Usually, when you have a fast car, hopefully you can stay up front and stay out of the big ones. If we can do that, I feel like we’ll have as good a shot as anybody when it comes down to two or three to go to try to put ourselves in position to win.
DID YOU GET TO CELEBRATE THE KING’S 75TH BIRTHDAY, AND WHAT DID YOU GET HIM AS A GIFT? “We’re going to be with him tomorrow night. They’re having a birthday party for him tomorrow night at the beach down in Daytona. We’ll see him tomorrow night. I tweeted him and he didn’t retweet or respond back to me. I’m not sure what the deal is there. I’m not sure if he got it or not, and I tried to call him on his cell phone, but he doesn’t have a cell phone. So, yeah, I haven’t been able to get in touch with him to wish him happy birthday, but I’ll see him tomorrow night.”
IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE SPRINT CUP SEASON ARE THERE ANY TRACKS THAT YOU’RE LOOKING FORWARD TO GETTING BACK TO, AND YOU BELIEVE YOU’RE GOING TO GET A GOOD RUN OUT OF? “Dover. We ran sixth at Dover and felt competitive all day. I look forward to going back there and building on what we had. We ran in the Top 10 all day and finished sixth. But there were some things that we feel like we could have done better and there are some things setup-wise that we feel like we can change going back that will make us better because our car wasn’t handling perfect, but it was good, and we ran sixth. I feel like if we can make that a little bit better, which will put us where we need to be to try to win going back there. I look forward to going back to Charlotte. We qualified on the pole and ran good there. We look forward to going back there. Marcos ran really well there. I felt like as an organization, we have a good package for there. I’m looking forward to Daytona this weekend. It’s another track we’re going back to for the second time. In the 500, I felt like we had a really fast car in two-thirds of the race. I got shuffled out and put in a bad position, and then they had the big one and wrecked up in front of us, and we didn’t have anywhere to go and got caught up in a wreck. But I felt like we had a really fast car. I’m looking forward to this weekend. There are quite a few tracks that I feel like I’ve learned a lot the first half of the season, and I feel like there are quite a few tracks we should be able to improve where we finished the first time there. So going back for a second time, I feel like we should be able to be a lot better, and be able to go back and look at our notes and say, okay, we did this good. I wouldn’t say there is one track in particular maybe other than Dover that I feel like is going to be spectacular. But I feel like we should be able to go and improve all of our finishes at all of the racetracks we’ve been to.”
DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR STRATEGY FOR THIS WEEK IN DAYTONA? DO YOU WANT TO TRY TO RUN TOWARDS THE FRONT OR HANG OUT IN THE BACK TO RIP THAT BIG ONE? WHAT IS YOUR STRATEGY? “I’m just going to go race. I feel like in every series that I’ve been in I feel like I run really good on restrictor plate tracks. I finished second, unfortunately, a few times at Talladega in the Truck Series. Restrictor plate racing can go either way. You can run up front and get caught in a wreck. You can ride around in the back and try to avoid it. You slow down for the big wreck, and somebody behind you doesn’t see it and piles you into it, or you can still get involved either way. I’m just going to go race. I feel like our sponsors deserve to see us up front and not riding around in the back. It’s more fun for me to go race all day than sit there and ride around. I think our plan is just to go up there and try to race all day and stay up front and stay out of trouble, hopefully. If it happens, it happens. Sometimes it’s out of your control. If we work there and work on having a fast race car and stay up front, we’ll be in a better position when it comes time at the end of the race to try to win.”
DO YOU EVER GET INTO THAT NO. 43, LOOK AT IT, AND KNOW HOW MANY VICTORIES THAT NUMBER HAS WON? AND DRIVING FOR THE MAN, RICHARD PETTY, MAYBE YOU’RE USED TO IT BY NOW, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU GOT INTO NO. 43? ANY STRANGE THOUGHTS? “Not really strange thoughts, but just excited, really. Maybe a small sense of disbelief, like I can’t believe I’m getting ready to get in the 43 car. How much Richard has accomplished in his career and driving that 43 car. I think out of all the numbers in NASCAR, 43 and the No. 3 relate with the fans more than any other car. And I would say probably the 43 more than the 3 just because it’s been around so much longer. Richard has won 200 races, so I think when people see the 43 car, they know who owns it. They know who used to drive it, and the fans relate. It’s a huge honor for me to get to drive that car. The one memory that sticks out for me the most is when we went to Kansas and celebrated the 40th anniversary of STP, and to walk up to that car, and to have the same paint scheme that Richard used to have with the 43 car, I mean it looked just like his car in the old days, the only difference was with the 2012 Ford Fusion, and it had my name on the roof. That was a special paint scheme and the one weekend that made me realize how awesome this opportunity is to drive that 43 car.”