Mike Ford finally returned to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage on Friday at Talladega Superspeedway, his first time back in a crew chief role since losing his job at Joe Gibbs Racing last December.
After JGR decided to fire Ford – Denny Hamlin's former crew chief – the veteran sat on the sidelines until Richard Petty Motorsports hired him this week to crew chief for Aric Almirola.
It was a surprising amount of time between jobs, since Ford had won 21 races in his career and had guided Hamlin to the Chase in each of their six seasons together – including the 2010 season, when the No. 11 team nearly won the championship.
"I'm a huge fan of Mike," Hamlin said Friday. "I can't believe it took this long for the guy to get a job. ... He, in my opinion, is one of the top five crew chiefs in the garage."
Speaking with reporters at Talladega on Friday, Ford blamed the timing of his job loss for causing the long layoff, calling it "bothersome for me."
"That is why you haven't seen me for a little bit, because there wasn't anything at that point," he said.
His chance to return finally came though on Monday when Sammy Johns, the director of operations for Richard Petty Motorsports, called Ford offering him the job to lead the No. 43 team.
Now, back in the garage for the first time since last year's season finale at Homestead, Ford is looking forward to working with Almirola, a young driver who is in the midst of his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series.
What Ford doesn't want to do is look back at the sour way his tenure at JGR came to end – particularly how one year removed from winning eight races and competing for the championship up until the very last lap of the season, he and his team weren't able to put that disappointment behind them.
"You know, I am not going to say a whole lot about that other than to say a lot of outside influence made it not fun," Ford said. "The past couple of years truly weren't that fun. It was best for both parties."
Hamlin said Ford didn't have "the cooperation of everyone" in the shop after a rough season.
"When things are good and you're winning, everyone is willing to listen to you and do what you want," the driver said. "When you're strugglng, everyone has a hard time buying into what you believe in."
Ford made it a point to state his relationship with Hamlin was still strong despite the somewhat messy breakup. The two still text, he said, and the crew chief added "I love Denny to death."
"I never had any problems with Denny and I still don't," he said. "In the organization, you see things that you need to work on, and if you are the only guy that sees them then you are the guy that is an issue."
For Ford, joining RPM represents a fresh start even if that start is coming a quarter of the way into the season. RPM – a Ford Racing-backed team, has the same cars and resources as powerhouse team Roush Fenway Racing.
"We see those guys running good each week," the crew chief said. "We aren't coming in to rebuild the organization on day one. I am looking to share some experience and slow-grow it. ... I am looking to smooth things out and progress over the next five or six weeks."
What made this opportunity so promising for Ford – and one he couldn't say no to – is the similarities he sees between Almirola and Hamlin.
"The most fun I've ever had crew chiefing was the first year and a half with Denny," Ford said. "That was a lot of fun because of the role that you play; you work together and you fed off each other. I see that here with Aric."