<
>

The band is back together at RPM with driver Aric Almirola's return

Aric Almirola still has the goal of making the playoffs. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Richard Petty Motorsports feels it finally has its team back together after more than two months of substitute drivers and crew chiefs.

When Aric Almirola broke his back in a crash May 13 at Kansas Speedway, the team already was without crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who was serving a three-race suspension for failing postrace measurements a week earlier at Talladega.

After missing eight weeks because of the partially crushed vertebra in his middle back, Almirola, in his sixth year at RPM, is set to return this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Substitute drivers Regan Smith (three events), Darrell Wallace Jr. (four races) and Billy Johnson (road-course at Sonoma) did a solid job for the organization. Wallace posted back-to-back top-15 finishes, where the team felt it was when Almirola got hurt -- Almirola had finishes of ninth and fourth the two weeks prior to Kansas. But the team is obviously glad to have its driver back behind the wheel.

"It's great -- it puts the team back together," team co-owner Richard Petty said. "Bubba [Wallace] did a heck of a job. He kept getting better and better because the crew started learning him and he started learning the crew.

"Aric has already been there. So this puts the full team back together."

Almirola said he has an additional boost, with a new feeling getting back into the driver's seat. When he tested Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway to make sure that he was OK, he probably never looked more forward to turning laps at 8:30 in the morning.

"In the very beginning [of my career], it was all very new and very exciting and after a while, it was just what I did -- I got on an airplane on Thursday, I flew to the race track and I raced that weekend and we did the best we could and came home," Almirola said.

"It got very routine and very monotonous. And not that I ever lost my passion or lost my love of racing, but it just became sort of routine and I somewhat took it for granted. And just in a moment, it got taken away and you realize, 'Wow, I missed it and I love it and I want to go back and want to race again.'"

He is confident he could withstand an accident, because his doctors wouldn't have let him return without them sharing that confidence. His initial recovery time was eight to 12 weeks, and he is at that window.

"It wasn't about how I felt, if I could actually go drive the race car," Almirola said. "It was about whether my body could withstand another accident."

Almirola said he only had some soreness Tuesday night from muscles that he hadn't used in two months. Beyond that, he feels ready.

"No real pain in the bone or anything like that, which is encouraging," said Almirola, who planned to get a final CT scan Thursday. "The doctors feel really good about the CT scans that we've had and all the new bone growth that has happened in that injured area.

"They're telling me to go race."

Not only is he ready to get back to racing, Almirola has the team thinking that maybe it could even slip into the NASCAR playoffs.

The team hasn't asked NASCAR for a waiver yet but plans to if Almirola wins a race. With Almirola eight points out of the top 30, he likely would make the top 30 if he can win a race over the final eight regular-season events to be eligible for the playoffs.

"That's very doable for us," Almirola said. "We've run really well at some of these tracks coming up."

Those places include Pocono, Bristol and Richmond. Almirola had an average finish of 15.2 entering Kansas -- and this year, top-15 teams have won races.

"We had a ton of momentum going into Kansas," Blickensderfer said. "We're looking for this weekend to start building that back. ... The team is rallying around, 'We're OK here. We are much better than we were [a year ago].'

"It's not every week we're going to be the fastest car, but there are a couple of places where we have earmarked where we could get up front and win a race."

The team has motivation, dropping from 21st to 25th in the owner standings from prior to Kansas to now.

"After Aric's injury we were kind of in flux. ... Not only did Aric break his back, but the crew chief got suspended, so the month of May was really tough for the No. 43," Blickensderfer said. "We went from being parked next to cars contending for the [playoffs] to a ways away from them in the garage. That was tough for us."

Not only does Almirola's return give the team a morale boost, now it also can talk to Smithfield and other sponsors about next year with confidence that Almriola is healthy enough to return. Neither Almirola nor Smithfield is signed with the organization for 2018.

"When we get Aric back, we've got the full team, so then we can go to potential sponsors, go back to Smithfield and say, 'OK, our team is back together now' and go from there," Petty said. "That's a plus-plus."