Can RPM drivers make Bristol breakthrough last?
Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose finished in the top five at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday night, all in all a noteworthy accomplishment by the Richard Petty Motorsports teammates.
And not because of some off-the-wall pit strategy, or a bizarre turn of events in the latter stages of the race (although bizarre was certainly an apt description of those final few laps).
No, Almirola and Ambrose, much like race winner Carl Edwards and runner-up Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and fourth-place Tony Stewart, drove their way into the top five and then managed to stay there.
Again, it was noteworthy. But the shelf life of such a feat has yet to be determined.
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series teams are already headed West once again, this time to Auto Club Speedway where conversations will likely be about SAFER barriers, the win-and-you’re-in (or so we’ve been told) Chase format and a regurgitation of last year’s Denny Hamlin/Joey Logano/Tony Stewart end-of-race spat.
A week-old top-five finish by both RPM drivers? We’ll see.
Similar results by some drivers would produce a week’s worth of copy. Take your pick. You know their names. Some are deserving, some are less so.
Top-five finishes by Almirola (a career-best third) and Ambrose (fifth) in the same race? It’s not rare. Before Sunday night’s Food City 500, it had never happened.
It was just the fourth career top-five for Almirola and the 16th for Ambrose in a pair of careers that don’t extend that far back.
Until he landed a full-time ride at RPM in 2012, Almirola was perhaps best known for winning a race in which he never saw the checkered flag – at Milwaukee in what is now known as the NASCAR Nationwide Series, circa 2007.
Ambrose is regarded as perhaps the most talented road-racer in the Cup Series, the downside being that the series competes on road courses only twice each season. Still, that’s been often enough for the 37-year-old to earn a pair of Cup victories.
The trick for both will be to back up last week’s results with something similar at Auto Club. It doesn’t have to be top-five material; a top-10 would say, ‘OK now we’ve got something to build on.’
It’s a tall order for the organization — Almirola, 30, cracked the top 20 at Fontana for the first time last year, finishing 14th. His other five finishes at Fontana had been 25th or worse.
Auto Club isn’t the worst track for Ambrose — but it’s close. His 28.8 average finish on the 2-mile layout rates just ahead of Homestead (30.2).
The track where Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch scored the first wins of their Cup careers, and where Kevin Harvick shot by Johnson in 2011 out of the blue and out of the final turn for the lead and the win has not been kind to RPM teams.
Almirola signed a three-year contract extension with RPM in January. Trent Owens is serving his first full tour of duty atop the pit box on the Cup side; he’s a five-time winner over in the Nationwide Series.
Ambrose and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer are entering their second full season together, having scratched out a 22nd-place points finish in 2013.
Neither team has gotten off to the best of starts this year, but they are far from the only ones. Maybe Bristol provides the push to get things turned around.
It was a noteworthy accomplishment. But unless the two teams continue to improve, the story of Bristol’s top-five finishes will be as stale as last week’s bread in no time at all.
It’s a sad fact, but a fact just the same.