The next race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is a Saturday night date with Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, one of only three short tracks remaining on the annual Sprint Cup docket. Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, has fared well on the two short track races, so far, in 2014 at Bristol (Ten.) Motor Speedway and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. He posted top-10 finishes in both races and scored a career-best third-place finish at Bristol in March.
On Wednesday, Almirola and his crew chief Trent Owens participated in a NASCAR teleconference to preview Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond. It just so happens that their boss, seven-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, is the all-time winningest driver at Richmond with 13-career wins at the track.
Here’s a transcript of what Almirola and Owens had to say:
Q. Aric, you’ve had a great start to the 2014 racing season. Talk about your outlook on Richmond this week, a track where your team owner has had so much success.
ARIC ALMIROLA: Yeah, I always get excited about going to Richmond. I like the racetrack a lot, and then besides the racetrack, it’s a big weekend for us with Smithfield Foods headquarters being right there nearby in Richmond, and we get a lot of people come out from Smithfield headquarters, and it’s just a big weekend, and it’s a lot of fun. I enjoy the racetrack. The racetrack is where I made my first Nationwide start, and I just got a lot of good memories from there, and I’ve always run there well it seems like, so I’m excited about going to Richmond this weekend.
Q. Trent, talk about your move to Richard Petty Motorsports this season and working with the family race team.
TRENT OWENS: Yeah, it’s been really good. We made the move over here in December and enjoy working with Aric, and everything has been going pretty good so far, I think. Going into Richmond, really looking forward to that race. Our short track program seems to be in a decent direction this year. We’ve got some work to do on our mile-and-a-halfs, but really looking forward to getting in front of the Smithfield folks and putting on a good show. I really like night racing, so I look forward to any night race. But no, the transition has been well. I enjoy the people here. I enjoy the work environment, and I couldn’t ask for a better place to make the transition from the Nationwide to the Sprint Cup.
Just really looking forward to the rest of the year.
Q. This is for Aric: It seems like you’ve been around for quite a while. I know you ran several years part-time, but there are a number of tracks where you have fewer than five starts in Cup. How much of an issue is that lack of track time compared to guys that have been around and raced 10, 15 or more times on some of these tracks?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Well, you know, it’s certainly an advantage to have more experience at racetracks because when you show up you know exactly what to expect to and what to look for in your race car to be fast. A lot of places we go, the racetrack is so different in the race than it is in practice and in qualifying, so having that experience obviously pays off and helps out.
You know, I think I don’t think it’s that big of a disadvantage because I’ve been to a lot of the racetracks now enough times to where I understand the racetracks and I feel like I’ve been to all the racetracks enough, and I’d say 85 percent of them I’ve had good runs at run time or another at them. I feel like I understand what it takes to go fast at most of the racetracks we go to. There’s still a handful of racetracks that are not my strong suit and that I’ve continued to struggle with a little bit, but for the most part I don’t think it’s that big of a disadvantage.
I’d certainly take more experience, but that will come over time.
Q. Do you pretty much know the feel you’re looking for when you go to a track now, like when you go into Richmond this weekend, do you have a pretty good idea of what you want the car to feel like there?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Yeah, Richmond is a place that I actually have a lot of laps at. The very first time I ever got to drive a truck, it was a two-day test at Richmond back in 2004 I think it was, 2004 or 2005, and I’ve done a lot of testing there in trucks and Nationwide cars and even Cup cars back when we were allowed to go test, and I made my first Nationwide start there. I think I’ve run quite a few Nationwide races there, and I’ve made quite a few Cup starts there.
I think I have a really good understanding of what it takes to run good at Richmond, and I’ve had good runs there. You know, last spring we ran pretty good there. I think we finished in the top 5 or maybe top 10, I’m not sure, and then in the fall race I thought we had an even better car than we had in the spring race, and we had an incident on pit road on a green flag stop that ended up getting a couple laps down and hurt our day.
But overall I think when I go to Richmond I’ve got a really good understanding of what it takes, and that’s one of the racetracks I was telling you about that the race is so much different than practice. There’s a few things you look for in practice to get your car to do that will help in the race, but for the most part practice is pretty tough to gauge on how the racing is going to go.
Q. Trent, I wanted to ask first of all, I remember talking to you in the media tour before the season about your vast Nationwide experience, and you said one of the things was learning the strategies at this level, at the Cup level, since you didn’t have as much familiarity with some of the guys. What have you sensed or what has it been like up there on the pit box, how the strategies change from the Nationwide? What are you seeing? What are you having to adjust to at this point?
TRENT OWENS: I think the biggest thing we have with the rules change, with the Chase format, I think people are a lot more aggressive than in years past, so it’s really hard to, I think, now compare. But the Cup Series is a little bit more conservative mode, a lot more four-tire changes through the middle portions of the race. You’ve got a lot more time to work on your car, which in my opinion it’s a lot nicer. You always field rushed sometimes in the Nationwide like this is your last chance to get it right. The strategy calling in the Cup Series has been a welcome change, but I have noticed a few of the guys out there making really aggressive calls toward the end of the race, and I’m sure that’s driven by the Chase format, which is a good thing.
But yeah, I know we talked about that over the winter, and I think the whole scope of the garage has probably changed a little bit in race calling just based on our points stuff.
Q. I wanted to ask you with your experience in the Nationwide Series, I know you worked with Kyle Larson, got to work with him and see some of the youth movement that’s taking place at that level. How much has that younger generation kind of, I don’t want to say taken over but had more of an impact, certainly in the trucks, and how you saw it in the Nationwide Series before moving up?
TRENT OWENS: Yeah, I feel very fortunate because I was able to do the K & N East races while I worked at Turner Motorsports for Ryan Blaney and got to experience what a talent he is, as well, and then to have a full season with Kyle Larson last year, he was an amazing young talent, a very mature racer, the more experience that he had, and I think you can all agree to that now, now that you’ve seen him run.
But it’s been good to see the young guys come in and see what mature racers they are now. You see it out of Chase Elliott now. It’s not like years past when a guy come in as a rookie, a lot of the rookies now, they’re very mature when it comes to the racetrack and race conditions. They probably have a bigger challenge on the personal side of the business more so than the racetrack, and I think you see that.
But it was a lot of fun. I can tell you working with Kyle last year, I felt like I developed even better as a crew chief. Having a rookie like he was that hadn’t had any experience in NASCAR and being able to teach him some things, it kind of helped me along, too.
And then I think Aric is a great talent, as well, and I don’t think he’s shown his ability on the racetrack just yet, and I think he’s just as good as any of those guys. I still think that we have a shot to win some races this year, and I’m looking forward to that.
Q. How is that experience helping you with Aric this year, working with Kyle or just working with younger drivers? Have you been able to parlay that or what has that done for you working with Aric this year?
TRENT OWENS: I think the biggest thing last year working with Kyle was he didn’t know a whole lot how the cars are put together or how the cars are built or how the setups are driven, so I was able to look at things more so in the past with an open mind, try things with him that I normally wouldn’t have been able to try with more experienced drivers.
I think there was a lot of development with that, and then obviously with NASCAR making the setup changes this year in the Sprint Cup Series, it opened a lot of new ideas, and I think my experience in what we did last year, it helped me with the transition into this season. I think it was a great year for any crew chief to make the transition into Cup with the setup changes, and I think that’s kind of helped the development just already having that mindset coming in.
Q. Richard has been gone for a while because of dealing with his wife’s passing, but I think he’s supposed to be back at Richmond this weekend. What does it mean to see him back at the track and kind of how he’s doing and moving forward?
TRENT OWENS: Yeah, I think he’s doing well. I think being back at the racetrack is going to be good for our race team and good for him. I think it’ll be good medicine. When something like that happens, you kind of want to hide for a little bit and just get your feelings straight, but he’s been by the shop and been in good spirits, and I think he’s doing very well considering. We look forward to definitely getting him back to the racetrack and getting him back into race mode.
Q. Can we just get Aric’s take on that, as well, what it means to have Richard Petty back at the track this weekend and if you’ve talked to him over the last month and what it’s been like without him at the track?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Yeah, I spent quite a bit of time with him over the last few weeks since Lynda has passed. It’s going to be great to have our leader back at the racetrack. He is the name and the face of our company, and all the guys on the race team and myself included look up to him and enjoy having him around at the racetrack and having him inside hauler and talking to us after practice and getting his perspective on what he sees with other race cars and with our race cars throughout practice and stuff like that. I’m excited about having him back at the racetrack, and I think, like Trent said, it’s going to be good medicine for him.
He’s come to about 95 percent of the races every year, so for him to have taken two or three weeks off like what he’s taken, I know he’s itching to get back to the racetrack. I spent all day with him yesterday in Nashville, and he’s looking forward to coming back to the racetrack in Richmond, and he’s our leader. He’s the guy we all look up to, and I’m excited about having him at the track, and I think it’ll boost all the guys’ morale on the team, too, to see him around, see him walking around and having him back hanging out around the hauler.
Q. Aric, along those lines, has the King been watching the races? Has he been kind of critiquing performance from afar the last month, or has he pretty much just kind of taken the time to focus on personal things?
ARIC ALMIROLA: No, he watches the races. I think he’s taken time to spend some time at home, and like Trent said, collect his thoughts and get to feeling straight. But man, you can’t take the racer out of that guy. He’s not going to sit at home and just sit around and do nothing. He’s been watching the practices and watching qualifying and watching the races. Dale Inman goes home on Sunday nights and gives him the full report on what went down that weekend and how things went. He’s still heavily involved, and he’s still been paying attention for sure. He just hasn’t been at the racetrack.
He knows everything that’s been going on. He knows what we’ve been struggling with, the things we’ve been doing good at, and he gets a full report every Monday, and he’s been coming by the shop, seeing the guys and talking to Trent and talking to Drew and everybody. He’s still been very involved. He just hasn’t been at the track.
Q. Trent, we used to talk about brakes all the time at Richmond and not so much anymore. Aric was talking about in practice getting the car to do a few things you wanted it to do. From a crew chief’s perspective what’s the biggest challenge in getting a car what you want it to do?
TRENT OWENS: The biggest challenge is exactly what he said, our practice time is — yeah, it’s just not even close to what we race in. You know, you try to make adjustments that you can put in the back of your head before the race when it’s time to do some different things, but the brakes stuff, yeah, all the components have just gotten so good now that we experience little problems with that stuff. I hope you definitely didn’t jinx us.
But practice is so tough. The tires wear out at Richmond but that does provide for good racing when the racing starts. You really want to be good off the hauler and just kind of work on a few things, maybe mock up some practice changes that duplicate your race stuff. But practicing during the day, racing at night at a place like Richmond is just so much different.
Q. Aric, your short track experience like in the Tampa area in Florida and beyond, has a lot of that transferred do you think to this level now?
ARIC ALMIROLA: I don’t think so. You know, obviously I enjoy racing short tracks and that’s what I grew up doing, but that’s what everybody grows up doing. I don’t know anybody that grew up racing at mile-and-a-half racetracks. I don’t think that gives me an advantage or anything like that, but you know, in years past at Richard Petty Motorsports our mile-and-a-half program has really been our strong suit and I’ve kind of dreaded going to the short tracks. Even though I like them, I’ve kind of dreaded it because I knew that our short track program wasn’t very good, and it was a struggle just to run 20th. We had to fight tooth and nail.
It’s kind of flip-flopped on us. Our short track program has been a lot better this year, and we’ve been really competitive on all the short tracks, and our mile-and-a-half program has actually been struggling.
We’re working really hard on that mile-and-a-half program to get that better, and as far as the short track stuff goes, I feel like I’ve always had a pretty good feel for short track racing. I think some of the things that I naturally, my habits inside the race car, they just suit well with short track racing. But I don’t want to take credit for my short track racing in Florida helping me on the Cup schedule because I think every race car driver that I race against, they all grew up short track racing, whether it was dirt short track racing or asphalt short track racing. We all have done it, and I think we all really enjoy it, too.
That’s why when you see guys have an opportunity to go back and do some late model racing or sprint car racing, whatever, as long as their owners agree, they take the opportunity to go do it because we all enjoy it. So yeah, I hope that was a good answer for you.
Q. For Trent, about that difficulty and challenges at each level, NASCAR level, obviously drivers have to go through that. How about for you moving up to the Cup level? Do you think that crew chiefs have the same — experience that same type of jump that they have to make at each level?
TRENT OWENS: I think in some ways, yes. I think the Camping World truck and the Nationwide Series are very close and alike, making the step to the Sprint Cup. There’s obviously a lot of things that change, especially when the competition level gets a lot steeper. You know, but as far as preparing race cars, as far as going to the racetrack, doing your thing through practice, they’re pretty much all the same, same rules of the road there.
A lot of that stuff doesn’t change, but the Cup side is just so much bigger. You have so many more people involved, so many more people to deal with. A lot of that side of the business comes more into play in a crew chief’s role than you see in the other series. There is definitely adjustments with each series. But I do think working in the Nationwide Series, it’s a good series to get to the Cup level from. I think there’s a lot of similarities, especially with the chassis and some of the things you fight on the aero side. So I would say if you’re going to make the transition, you would probably be best to do Nationwide first.
Q. I’ll ask this of both of you because the King sort of knew what the racetrack that you’re going to is all about. How much information do you receive from Richard Petty before the race starts and even during the race?
ARIC ALMIROLA: That’s a loaded question. He gives us a lot of information about different things about different racetracks on what they did back in the ’60s and ’70s and stuff like that. I think the biggest thing for me is just that there are things that I can pick up on on what he said about different racetracks, but it’s so different now from when he was so successful. In the ’60s and ’70s he won how many races at Martinsville. I think it was like 19 races or something, and the biggest reason he won all those races was he kept his brakes on the car better than anybody else, and we don’t have those issues no more.
It wasn’t that his car turned way better than anybody else or anything like that, he just — he was really good at saving his tires and he was really good at preserving the brakes on his car, and when everybody else ran out of brakes with 100 laps to go, he still had more brakes than everybody else, and probably more of the same at Richmond, too.
There are some things that I can pick up from him as far as some of the racetracks we go to and the things that we’ll fight and struggle with and the things that he might have done, but the one thing I will say that I’ve picked up on from him the most is like during practice he’ll stand up on top of the hauler and he’ll watch, he’ll watch me, he’ll watch other people, he’ll watch the other cars, and Dale Inman will stand up there, too, and Dale is really big on taking lap times with a stopwatch and he’ll also take corner splints, and after practice they’ll come down and they’ll talk with me and say, well, so-and-so is running the middle of 3 and 4 and his corner splints were a tenth and a half better or you were really beating these guys through 1 and 2. That’s the one thing that I think I pick up the most from Richard and Dale on when they’re at the racetrack is just what they observe on that weekend.
Q. Can you talk about what Stanley has planned with the Children’s Miracle Network this weekend?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Yeah, it’s a really cool weekend. Obviously it’s a big weekend for us with Smithfield Foods on the car and being so close to Smithfield, Virginia, but also Marcos’ sponsor, Stanley, has got a big activation this weekend. They’re doing a lot with Ace Hardware and the Children’s Miracle Network, and they’re raising a lot of money and it potentially could be a lot more money if Marcus wins or runs in the top 5 to benefit the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. I think they’re bringing four kids from the Children’s Miracle Network to be honorary crew members on Marcus’s team, and we’re going to go out and sign autographs and do a little built of a fundraising event on Friday morning before practice.
That’s exciting. Any time you can get involved with a community and give back and engage the younger crowd and the younger fans in our sport, it’s really fun. I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to do stuff like this through our sponsors at Smithfield, and then the last couple years with Stanley, they’ve done this year after year. It’s a lot of fun to be able to have that opportunity to get involved and give back and to see the expressions on those kids’ faces when they get to come in the pit area and check out the race cars and to be honorary crew members.
It’s going to be a fun weekend for us.