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Charlotte win could catapult Aric Almirola’s career

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, May. 26, 2012

CONCORD – What can a career-first Sprint Cup Series victory in the Coca-Cola 600 mean for a driver?

Perhaps everything.

There are four drivers – Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte and Casey Mears – in the field for Sunday’s 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway whose first career win came in this race.

Three of them – Gordon, Kenseth and Labonte – have gone on to win the series championship.

Could Aric Almirola be the next on that star-studded list?

Almirola’s future in the series certainly won’t be decided in Sunday’s race but a victory could set the tone for the rest of 2012 season and the direction his career has yet to take.

“We ran some things at the All-Star Race that weren’t exactly what we were looking for, so Mike (Ford, crew chief) came back with a few things a little different and we were a lot better (this weekend),” Almirola said.

“I think the speed in our cars has always been there, it’s just about executing and that’s the one thing Mike has really focused on is just execution – trying to get all of the little parts and pieces and things.

“Everybody is so good and our competition is so tough that if you don’t execute all the little things they’ll jump up and bite you. So, I feel like as far as speed has gone we’ve had really fast race cars, it’s just about executing.”

Almirola will be joined on the front row by his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate, Marcos Ambrose – the first time since 2010 at Kansas RPM started claimed both front row spots.

The qualifying performance on Thursday night was another step in the development of the organization, which has show speed and potential this season but thus far produced inconsistent results.

This is Almirola’s first season with the team and entering this weekend, he is 21st in the series standings with one top-10 finish, an eighth earlier this season at Martinsville, Va.

However, this is Almirola’s third race working with Ford, who replaced Greg Erwin following Almirola’s 26th place finish at Richmond, Va., last month.

Ford has an extensive resume in NASCAR. He spent the past several years at Joe Gibbs Racing as crew chief for Denny Hamlin and the duo won eight races and finished second in points in 2010.

“Coming in mid-season is very difficult these days because you don’t know the philosophies that have taken that company to where they’re at. You don’t know the theories behind the mechanical pieces,” Ford said.

“You don’t know why things have evolved to where they’re at, so coming in midseason when you come in, it’s always because things aren’t good. So, coming in it was very obvious that it was execution, and it’s still execution.”

Almirola, 28, has never run a full season in Cup before but has finished as high as second in series points in the Truck series (2010) and fourth in Nationwide (last season).

Some were surprised about Almirola’s move to the iconic No. 43 in the offseason but Almirola has remained confident in his ability.

“I just go out and do the best I can every week. I I feel like I’m a good race car driver,” he said. “I feel like I can get the job done and nights like (Thursday) proves that to me so much more because anytime you can get a pole in the Cup Series, that’s doing something.

“These guys don’t every lay down. They always run the best lap they can possibly run every lap they’re on the race track, so to be able to do that – and not that I’m bragging by any means – but to do it by two-tenths is like, ‘Wow.’ That was cool.

“I did it for one lap. Now we’ve got to work on doing it for 600 miles.”

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