ARIC ALMIROLA – No. 43 Smithfield Ford Fusion
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO HAVE THIS FULL-TIME OPPORTUNITY? “It feels great to come in here to Daytona and get ready for the year. This is the most excited I’ve been in a long time about racing a Sprint Cup car. It’s a huge honor to drive that 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports and all the history behind it, and to have that opportunity to have my name above the door and get to drive that car, I’m super-excited about it."
DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU AND YOUR TEAM ARE UNDERDOGS? “I would say that Richard Petty Motorsports used to be considered an underdog race team, but if you really look at all the efforts that Richard has put into turn his race team around, taking it from Randelman, North Carolina and moving it down to Concord, aligning himself with Ford and aligning himself with Roush Fenway Racing to get cars and get motors and horsepower from Doug Yates. You look at all those steps that he’s taken to put his race team back to the top, obviously they probably don’t have the wins that you would expect out of race teams like Hendrick in recent years, but I think the legacy of Richard Petty Motorsports continues a long way back and still resonates with us today. My goal going into this year is to put them back on the map. I think Marcos winning last year at Watkins Glen put them where they need to be. People realize they can win races, they’re a winning-capable team and they did that. So, for me, I just go into this season and they’ve got good cars, they’ve got good horsepower, aligned with a great manufacturer with Ford. We’ve got great sponsors in Smithfield, U.S. Air Force and STP, so all of the pieces to the puzzle are there to go out and be successful. I feel like it’s up to me and Greg Erwin to go out there and get the job done."
WHAT IS YOUR OUTLOOK THIS SEASON? “I feel like going into this year, this is gonna be my first year running full-time in Cup. I’ve never run more than 12 races in a year, so I think, for me, I’m still a rookie. I’m gonna make rookie mistakes. I would like to limit those, and I think that all the experience I have from running the Truck Series in 2010 and winning some races there and running for a championship – we came up a little bit short but we finished second in the points. I think that experience, coupled with racing last year for a championship with Junior Motorsports on the Nationwide side, those last two years have been big for me as far as building as a racecar driver and building my car, so I really look forward to this year and I can feel like going into this season that the possibility is there to go out and kind of have a breakout year in the Sprint Cup Series."
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR FIRST 500 START? “It was an up-and-down day. I remember getting in a little bit of a wreck early and having to come in and fix the splitter. We got it fixed and got the car to where it was actually running really good, and we got back to where we were running in the Top 10 and there was a wreck off of turn two and we got caught up in it and slid down through the grass. We didn’t really tear the car up, but the caution came out and the rain came, so we got scored the last car on the lead lap. We had a really good car there, but it was a disappointment. My last 500 year was not something I’d like to leave here with again. You come to Daytona and realize when you come here anything can happen. You saw that last year with Trevor Bayne winning. Who would have ever thought Trevor Bayne was gonna come here and win the Daytona 500. You come here knowing that you have just as good a shot as anybody else to win the Daytona 500 and you have just as good a shot as anybody else to end up in the big one and you know that when you leave the house."
HAVE YOU DREAMED OF WINNING THIS RACE AS A KID? “Yeah. Growing up in Tampa I lived two hours away, so I’ve sat in those grandstands and watched the Daytona 500 and the Firecracker 400. Growing up as a kid and coming to this race track and watching the Pettys, and Sterling Marlin when he won so many races here in that Kodak 4 car. I lived that. I was here. I sat in those grandstands and watched it. We sat wherever we could get a ticket, but I sat up there and watched it. I remember being a kid and thinking how cool it would be just to turn a lap on Daytona International Speedway, so I’m living way out beyond my dreams. This is something that I’ve thought about as a little kid just making a lap, so now I actually get to race the Daytona 500."
YOUR GRANDFATHER RACED, DIDN’T HE? “My grandfather ran dirt sprint cars when I was growing up and he was a huge inspiration to my racing career. He raced all over the east coast running dirt sprint cars. It’s my mom’s father, but when my mom and dad got married, my dad got involved in my grandfather’s racing and my dad started going to the race track. Well, he actually became my grandfather’s crew chief, so on Fridays at school I’d usually get picked up at lunch time and I’d get in the truck and trailer with my family and we’d go sprint car racing and that’s what I did. I did that from the time I was a little kid all the way until my grandfather and dad got me racing in a go-kart. So racing for me was normal. It’s what we did on the weekends and it was something that I really enjoyed and I got to spend a lot of quality family time with my grandfather and my dad and my uncle, so, for me, growing up and being at the race track scraping mud off a dirt sprint car was what I did."
HOW DID THAT YEAR SHARING A RIDE WITH MARK MARTIN HELP YOU? “Mark was a big help for my career. Mark was the guy, especially growing up. The older I got Mark was it. He was the best racecar driver in our sport to never win a championship hands-down, so to have the opportunity that I had when I left Gibbs to go learn from him was a no-brainer for me. I felt like I could go and learn a lot from him and I did. Mark was great to work with. He was very open and candid with me and helped me from race track to race track that I went to, so having him as a teammate and a real teammate at that – we were actually sharing the same car, same equipment, same crew chief, same crew – that was a really big growing point in my career and I learned a lot.”
DAVID RAGAN – No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Fusion
YOU’RE THE LAST WINNER IN THE CUP SERIES HERE AT DAYTONA. HOW DOES THAT FEEL? “Daytona has always been a special place for me, coming down here to run my first ARCA race in 2004, so I’ve always thought a lot of this place and the history here. I’m a big history guy for the sport of stock car racing, so it’s always been a special place for us and now to have a win, my only Sprint Cup Series victory here at Daytona makes it even that much more special."
WHAT CHANGES FOR A DRIVER WHEN YOU GET THAT FIRST WIN? “Mentally, you have more self confidence. You’re probably treated a little different in the community being that you finally got that win, and, obviously, just some self pride that, ‘Hey, this was my goal and we were able to do it.’ Obviously, this sport is a little bit different. Most other sports you have a 50/50 chance of winning, whereas here it’s a little different situation. But to be a Sprint Cup Series winner at the highest level is certainly special. A lot of people have tried and have not been able to do that, but you don’t rest on that satisfaction. Now it’s like, ‘I don’t want to be one of those guys with just one win. I don’t want to be a guy with just two wins,’ so now you try to improve that."
CAN YOU CARRY THAT BOOST INTO THIS YEAR? “Absolutely. I think it’s helped in selling some sponsorship that I’m a Sprint Cup winner. We’ve had two or three great announcements the last couple of months and selling some races here and there, so absolutely it helps, not only on the race track but off the race track as well."
DO YOU THINK WITH THE WAY IT ENDED FOR THE 6 TEAM LAST YEAR THAT MAYBE YOU DIDN’T GET TO CAPITALIZE ON IT AS MUCH AS PERHAPS YOU WOULD HAVE IN ANOTHER SITUATION? “Probably. If that would have been a year or two ago we would have been able to capitalize on that win and really enjoy it. A month or so after the win we all knew that we were going in different directions, so it’s something that all the guys on my team, we’ll look back and enjoy that, but you move on and I can’t wait to get the next win with Front Row Motorsports."
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU LIFE IF YOU WIN THIS RACE? “It’s gonna be huge. We’ve got a great chance to win the Daytona 500. I really feel confident that we’ve got as equal a chance to win as anyone else sitting in this room this weekend. Phoenix and Vegas is a little different story, but it can be done. We’re gonna race the Bud Shootout, the duel races, the Nationwide race and the Cup race with that mentality. As far as obviously being a Daytona 500 champion, that’s something that you probably don’t really know how it will affect you until it actually happens. You can only dream of that, but the sky is the limit with our team, our employees, our sponsors and with Ford as a manufacturer. It would be incredibly huge for a smaller team than I think it would be for a larger team."
YOU GOT SOME REDEMPTION IN JULY FOR WHAT HAPPENED IN THE 500. IS IT STILL ON YOUR MIND? DOES IT STILL BOTHER YOU? “It doesn’t bother me, last year’s Daytona 500, but it’s still on my mind. You still think about it and I go back and ‘what if this and what if that’ over my decisions not only in motorsports but in life in general. It’s something I can use as motivation. If you learn from a situation like that, it makes you a stronger person. I’m definitely smarter and stronger today than I was this time a year ago. I definitely know the restart rule and how NASCAR is going to police them, unless they’ve changed something n the rule book that I don’t know about it. So I think about it some, but I can sit back and enjoy it and laugh about it, whereas six months ago it might have kept me up a little bit at night."
DID THE JULY WIN HELP? “Absolutely. Being able to look at that trophy sitting on the shelf or seeing a notch in the win column, seeing my name on one of the winner’s history board in the media center, that helps a little bit just because that’s the most recent thing that’s happened, but for the rest of my life you’re always gonna remember how close you’ve come to winning a 500, and I hope I’ve got many more that we can talk about other than just the last couple years.”
DAVID GILLILAND – No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford Fusion
HOW DO YOU SEE THINGS WORKING IN THE DRAFT HERE? “It’s hard to say, but I think with pack racing, in the past you’ve been able to kind of hang back, but I think track position is still very important. The track is only so wide, so if people are running two or three-wide in front of you, you can’t go. I’ve been stuck back there a couple times ready to go at the end and just kind of run out of real estate, so track position is still gonna be important. You’ve got to go up and race with those guys throughout the race, so that when it comes time to go at the end, you’re up there and working with people you’ve worked around through the race and not just popping up in there at the end and there are guys they’ve worked with behind you that they’re more willing to work with at that time. It’s gonna be tricky. The cars are gonna move around a lot more. They’ve got a smaller rear spoiler on them, which means less downforce. The speeds were up and when the speeds are up and less downforce, you have more of a handful and the cars are going to be moving around a lot, and I think it’s gonna put on a great show."
DO YOU REPLAY LAST YEAR’S 500 AND THINK YOU COULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING DIFFERENT TO MAYBE WIN? “Probably only about 10,000 times. We were in position to win last year. We came up a little bit short, but you go back and replay all that stuff in your mind. I feel like we learned a little bit and feel like we’re ready to put it to work on Sunday. We’re bringing the same car back and feel like we made a lot of great improvements to it. Since Pat (Tryson) has come over he’s made some improvements of his own to it, so I feel like we’re gonna have a really good car. I just can’t wait to get out there and get racing."
ANYTHING SPECIFIC YOU COULD HAVE DONE? “Carl and I were coming and when we caught Trevor at the end, we were coming with a pretty good run and I felt if we could have gone to the outside of him either Carl or myself would have had a better chance of winning, but it just didn’t work out. I think Carl was kind of worried about blocking me and things happen so fast at 200 miles an hour, so last year was a two-car tandem deal and I think at the end of the race you’re gonna see some of that too. The key is just trying to figure out through this week of how far and how much pushing you can do and how long you can do it, so you can use that as a tool when you come to the end of the 500."
IS DUEL DAY FUN FOR THE DRIVERS? “It’s fun. It’s getting back to racing and what we all love to do, and building that notebook on what we need to do and where we need to position ourselves on Sunday."
DOES IT MATTER WHERE YOU START IN THE 500? “No. The pole is always good and we’ve been there before and that was good, but, no, I don’t believe it does. You just have to go out there and work on your car and get it to drive well and have as much speed as you can throughout the week.”
MICHAEL MCDOWELL – No. 98 K-Love Ford Fusion
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING ABLE TO COMPETE AT SPEEDWEEKS? “For me in the Cup Series, especially the last couple of years, I’ve just been hanging on and doing whatever I can to stay in this sport – start and parking for various teams – and I sort of made a nitch of making these races. This off-season, Phil Parsons Racing merged with Whitney Motorsports and switched manufacturers over to Ford and we’re really gearing ourselves up to be more competitive than we have ever been. Our intentions are to run the first five races and run the full races and try to lock ourselves in the Top 35 and build sponsorship around that and keep going. It’s awesome for us just to see the evolution of the race team and the fact that we’re not continuing to just start and park. We’ve built this program over the last couple of years and now we have an opportunity to race."
ARE YOU LOCKED INTO THE 500? “We are not locked in."
ARE YOU ALREADY THINKING ABOUT THURSDAY? “I’m not, I’m thinking about Sunday and the reason I’m thinking about Sunday is our guys have done a tremendous job on this racecar. Everybody talks about how much time is spent on a speedway car, but they started the day we got back from Talladega. Having Roush Yates power is gonna be a huge deal for us. We need to qualify in on the top three go or go-homers and we really think that we have a shot at doing that. Our goal is to not have to worry about racing on Thursday, to be locked in on Sunday. That’s a huge task in front of us, but our guys have worked diligently to make sure that we can do that."
IS IT NICE TO HAVE THE ROUSH YATES POWER AND NOT HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT THAT ELEMENT? “For sure. To be honest with you, the timing couldn’t be better for us. With the fuel injection coming in, it’s just too much for a small team to take on, so just having that partnership with Ford and having the expertise with Doug Yates and his group, we know we have a proven commodity and that’s one thing you check off your list, particularly with these speedway races. It’s a huge thing for us, so I’m very positive and excited to be moving this program in the right direction."
IT MUST BE NICE TO HAVE THOSE FIRST FIVE RACES TO RUN THE DISTANCE? “Yeah it is and it’s funny because in this sport it’s tough because you’re always trying to justify what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and this is why I’ve done it for the last three years is to put myself in position where I can race every weekend and we can build partners and build sponsorship. There’s lot of positive things happening around our race team and it’s one race at a time. We just keep building the program.”