Will Richard Petty Motorsports' Big Changes Bring Results in 2014 NASCAR Season?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2014

NASCAR racing legend Richard Petty is seen during a news conference at Michigan International Speedway, Saturday, June 15, 2013 in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Richard Petty Motorsports could be one of the most improved teams in NASCAR's Sprint Cup division in 2014.

Yes, you read that right.

The legendary team, which has been relegated to also-ran status for much of the last three decades, could potentially have its best season since the 1970s and early 1980s.

Just three years after nearly being forced to close the doors on its legendary NASCAR program, RPM has been revived and bounced back in a big way, particularly during the current offseason.

"I've seen it at its darkest days, and I'm really looking forward to 2014, because I think it's the year that [RPM] can break out and really show everybody the maturity that it's taken since I've been there, which is four years now," Australian Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 Stanley Tools Ford Fusion, told Bleacher Report.

"At the end of the day, we're all racing to win and put Richard Petty back in Victory Lane. We've been able to do it occasionally over the last couple years, but we want to do it on a more frequent basis if we can."

One of the biggest changes is that RPM finally has—and it's hard to believe it hasn't had one up to now—its own research and development (R&D) program, which should in theory go a long way in improving the organization's fate and performance in 2014.

It also has a hefty new three-year deal with Smithfield Foods as primary sponsor of Aric Almirola's Ford Fusion that should pay big dividends.

"We're probably in the best shape we've been in the last three or four years," Richard Petty said to B/R. "Everybody knows we hit the bottom of the deal three years ago. … We just tried to get some foundation (since then). I don't know if our year (2013) was that much better than the year before, but we were a lot more stable."

For a good chunk of the first half of last season, Almirola's performance was one of the most pleasant surprises in the Sprint Cup Series. He managed to get as high as eighth in the standings before a variety of problems—many mechanical that could potentially have been helped by having an R&D program in place—caused him to finish 18th.

But that's nowhere near as much as Almirola's teammate, Ambrose, suffered through, as he had arguably his worst season ever in Sprint Cup racing, finishing a disappointing 22nd.

"Certainly, 2013 was the most difficult year of my racing career," Ambrose said during the recent NASCAR media tour. "The fact that I've always been on an upward trend in NASCAR, 2013 was the first year that I flattened off and even dropped back down."

As a result, Ambrose, 37, is facing a very pivotal season in 2014. Unless he shows marked improvement and bounces back from last season's disappointments, it could potentially be his last season of racing in the U.S.

"If I have another year like [2013], I'm going to have to really start scratching my head and have a good hard think about what I'm doing, because this year is certainly the year we need to break out and do something special," Ambrose said.

Petty admits concern that Ambrose will leave after 2014. The only way to prevent that, obviously, is for both Ambrose and the organization to have stellar seasons.

"I don't know how much longer he wants to stay in the U.S.," Petty said. "[Ambrose has] come a long way. He's sort of a hero in Australia just because he's running Cup. His big deal is if he could win on a round racetrack, that would be the optimum for him. If he did do that, he'd probably just go home and say, 'Thank you guys,' but I don't know."

But Ambrose is ready to give everything he has to not only stay in the States, but, more importantly, to see the Petty resurgence through for not only this upcoming season, but for several more seasons to come.

"Where the rules are going this year, it's going to give us a better chance to make the Chase and really do something special," Ambrose said. "The gloves are off, and we're looking forward to turning a fresh page."

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