Is Richard Petty Motorsports' Early 2014 Success a Mirage?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2014

FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2013 file photo, Aric Almirola, right, talks with Marcos Ambrose during qualifying for the NASCAR Irwin Tools Night Race in Bristol, Tenn. In 75 races as teammates, Almirola and Ambrose had never before run in the top-five together. They finally broke through at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Richard Petty Motorsports scored its best overall day as an organization in years. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

When Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola and teammate Marcos Ambrose start Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway, they'll be in excellent position to contend for the win.

The entire RPM organization is not only enjoying a renaissance in 2014, like a little tugboat it's actually pushing its way through and showing it has just as much of a chance to win a Cup race as guys like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and others.

Admittedly, where they're at in the standings right nowAmbrose is 18th and Almirola is 22ndis concerning.

But with the runs the drivers have had of lateAmbrose was fifth at both Bristol and Martinsville, and Almirola was third and eighth in Bristol and Martinsville, as wellthis is definitely a team that is on the move upward.

The organization may not be quite ready for prime time or to go head-to-head for an entire race with the likes of Johnson, Gordon and others, but given how long it's been since RPM had extended success, what Almirola and Ambrose have done thus far in 2014 is causing fans, media and more importantly, other teams, to start taking RPM much more seriously.

Ford power has something to do with it. That the organization has its first dedicated research and development department in team history is another significant plus.

Richard Petty has a lot to be smiling about these days.
Richard Petty has a lot to be smiling about these days.Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

But an equal amount of credit has to be given to the two drivers. Ambrose is in the final year of his contract with RPM, and it's uncertain whether he'll remain in Sprint Cup (specifically with RPM) or possibly return to his native Australia and his V8 Supercars roots.

At the same time, Almirola has developed into quite a proficient driver, as well. He's gained more maturity, confidence, got married and became a father, and has taught himself and others that he's just as good as anybody else.

That kind of confidence is what makes winning drivers, and eventually championship drivers.

To see the way Almirola and Ambrose play off each other has become an impressive feat. When they're near each other on the race track, they help each other, block for each other and seem to have stolen a few pages from the success manual of guys like Johnson and Gordon.

When your team is constantly back in the pack, when you hover somewhere around 20th in both regular race finishes and overall points standings, it unquestionably has to work on your confidence.

Ambrose had a poor season in 2013. Almirola, meanwhile, looked good early in last season, being ranked as high as eighth in the standings before falling back in the second half of the season.

At the end of the 2013 campaign, Ambrose slipped to 22nd in the final standings (he also failed to win at least one race after doing so in each of the previous two seasons), while Almirola finished a career-best 18th.

For far too longlike more than 20 years too longRPM was a shell of the organization that steered Richard Petty to a record 200 wins and a record-tying seven Cup championships.

It's almost as if mediocrity was acceptable. Then again, because the organization struggled with sponsorship for so many years, limiting its resources and ability to go head-to-head with Cup's big boys, there really wasn't much of a choice.

You took what you got and moved on to the next race.

But with Smithfield Foods having become a major sponsor this season, perhaps the biggest and having the deepest pockets since Petty was winning so many races and championships for STP, it's helped give RPM what it's needed for so long: money and resources.

Will either Almirola and Ambrose earn the Sprint Cup championship this season? Probably not, but they'll have taken a number of positive steps in that direction.

Before, RPM was an organization where what you saw was what you got. Today, it's an organization that's building and growing.

That's not a mirage, whatsoever. It's reality of even more good things to come.

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