After 2014 Chase berth, Aric Almirola expects “breakout year” for Richard Petty Motorsports

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Aric Almirola was part of one of the biggest surprises of the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season when he pushed Richard Petty Motorsports into the Chase with a rain-shortened win at Daytona in July.

He would be bounced from the postseason in the opening Challenger Round, but Almirola and the No. 43 team had still achieved their two biggest aspirations for the season.

“We went out and set some pretty lofty goals for ourselves to get the 43 car back to Victory Lane and try to make the Chase, and we were able to do both those things,” he said this morning during the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte. “I think we surprised some people and I think we had a really good year. But we wanna grow from that.”

Now, Almirola expects in his words, a “breakout year,” in 2015. With steady backing from an array of sponsors (more details here), RPM’s move to a larger shop in Mooresville, N.C., and the addition of Sam Hornish Jr. as a teammate, Almirola sees big things ahead.

Bringing Sam on board on that 9 team there is gonna be a big boost for our race team, and the shop – just getting everybody on the same page and working together,” Almirola said. “I couldn’t be more proud of where Richard Petty Motorsports is at today compared to where it was at three years ago when I [joined the team.]

“And even more so than just last year. Last offseason, we were working hard but we were only working hard with the tools that we had. Now, we have more tools than we’ve ever had since I’ve been there, so I’m excited about it. I think everybody at the shop is too.”

Almirola’s Daytona win was enough to overcome what had been an inconsistent 2014 regular season. He (along with former RPM teammate Marcos Ambrose) was notably strong on short tracks such as Bristol and Martinsville, but wasn’t always as solid on the intermediate ovals.

In a one-on-one today with NASCAR AMERICA’s Jason Weigandt, Almirola admitted that his team couldn’t always figure out why the car would be so up-and-down from week to week. But in their new shop – which allows for bodies to be hung on RPM’s chassis and also has more space for engineering and simulation – Almirola thinks problems will be pinpointed much quicker.

“Working in our own shop and being able to see our race cars go through the production and assembly, and if [crew chief] Trent [Owens] wants to go and change something on the car, he can watch our car get wheeled back into the [fabrication] shop and they can cut on it, work on it – he can oversee that,” Almirola said.

“Then we can watch it go through the paint/body shop and watch it get assembled. We’re gonna have our hands on the cars a lot more this year. We think – we hope – that it will produce results for us and make a lot more consistency.”

As for where Almirola thinks the No. 43 may shine in 2015, he obviously looks at Daytona (he told Weigandt that his winning car from last July will be his primary car for next month’s Daytona 500) and the short tracks.

But he knows that improved results are needed everywhere.

“We need to look at our schedule and look at where we ran really well [in 2014], and try to do better,” he said. “Then we need to look at the places where we ran 25th and try to run 15th. If we do that, I think we’re going to be in contention to win another race and make the Chase.”

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

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If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing at Barber

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IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”