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.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”