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After trying week, light at the end of the tunnel for Petty, Aric Almirola

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013

Timing is everything in NASCAR and not just in a race.

Richard Petty Motorsports, thrown into turmoil earlier this week when one of its Sprint Cup Series crew chiefs, Todd Parrott, was indefinitely suspended for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy, received a welcomed surprise on Saturday.

Early-morning rain canceled qualifying for Sunday’s Camping World 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and as a result of posting Friday’s fastest practice speed, RPM’s Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Ford, was awarded the pole.

Parrott had been working as Almirola’s crew chief until his suspension on Thursday. The former championship-winning crew chief has indicated he will enter NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program.

“It was certainly unexpected,” Almirola said of Parrott’s suspension. “That was definitely something that caught us off guard and something that we have had to work with on a day-to-day basis.

“Every day has been just a little different and we are trying to work through it and do the best we can.”

Sammy Johns, RPM’s director of operations, is serving as Almirola’s interim crew chief this weekend. Almirola said the organization will announce a plan next week for the team for the remainder of the 2013 season.

In any case, the No. 43 Ford used at Talladega was prepared weeks prior to Parrott’s suspension, and Almirola said this weekend’s speed of his and teammate Marcus Ambrose’s car is testament to the organization’s quality personnel.

“I think it talks a lot about how our race team is well-rounded,” Almirola said. “We have a lot of guys at the shop that do a really good job with our cars, and these cars were prepared several weeks ago,

“You look at (Ambrose) as well, we are both up here, so I think a lot of it goes back to the guys at the shop.”

Jeff Burton starts second, Ambrose third, Martin Truex Jr. fourth and Carl Edwards fifth.

While RPM begins Sunday’s race up front, to find the the top contenders in this season’s Chase for the Cup requires looking farther down the lineup.

Series points leader Matt Kenseth is 12th, Jimmie Johnson 11th and Kevin Harvick – third in the series standings – 33rd.

Some drivers typically come into the superspeedways races at Daytona and Talladega with some sort of racing plan – either work with a certain driver or lay back and wait until later in the event to make a move to the front.

“I’ve never really had much success making too much of a plan,” said Kenseth, who leads Johnson by four points. “Seems like you just kind of try to do what comes natural.

“If it seems like you have the speed and you can lead, be up front, do that. If not, you’re not comfortable, maybe you change your plan then, but every time I’ve really sat down and tried to make a huge plan going into this race it never really worked out very well for me.”

Johnson’s strategy is even more succinct – survive.

“Honestly, I’ll be anxious to get out of there,” Johnson said of the Talladega race weekend. “I’m just ready for it to happen; and go on, and race from there.

“Last year, I don’t think we finished a restrictor plate race, and this year we’ve had two wins; and I think the other was in the top-five. So, I hope this trend of top-five finishes stays alive in Talladega.

“After Talladega, at that point, you can really race individuals. I think up until Talladega, you’re still racing the field and anything can happen and anybody has a chance.”

Johnson does have one stat going for him: Five of the past 10 Talladega races have been won by a Chevrolet driver.

Because the field was set by the rulebook and practice speeds, Sam Hornish Jr. – driving a part-time entry for Penske Racing – was the only car which failed to make the starting field.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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