Marcos Ambrose, Richard Petty Motorsports facing crossroads

Jerry Markland

As he seeks his first oval track win, the 2014 season is shaping up to be a pivotal one for Marcos Ambrose.

Following a decent but rather unfulfilling season, if there is an organization that needs to hit the reset button this offseason it would be Richard Petty Motorsports. And the next couple of months are critical for the two-car team as it prepares for what should be viewed as a decisive 2014 campaign.

2013 in the Rearview

After a solid finish to the 2012 season -- his first full year in NASCAR's No. 1 division -- it wasn't unreasonable to think Aric Almirola was poised for a breakthrough season in 2013. That notion was reinforced when through 10 races he was sitting eighth in the point standings, which had the No. 43 team thinking seriously about a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

That playoff push never materialized. Almirola's performance regressed -- or more accurately, regressed toward the mean -- and in the remaining 26 races, he finished in the top 10 only twice. Also not helping matters was the loss of crew chief Todd Parrott, who was suspended and then terminated following an October violation of NASCAR's substance-abuse policy.

Although it may not have been the season he once envisioned, Almirola did jump two spots in the standings to 18th and saw an improvement in his average finish and lead lap finishes.

Similar to his teammate, for much of 2013 Marcos Ambrose lacked consistency and speed. While he showed flashes previously, ovals continue to hamper the noted road racing ace as he led a mere two laps on tracks without right-hand turns.

As is typically the case, Ambrose's season is defined by how he performs on the series' pair of road courses, and last season he let potential victories at Sonoma and Watkins Glen elude him. Overall, he finished the year 22nd in points with six top-10s and a best result of sixth.

2014 Driver Lineup

Marcos Ambrose (No. 9 Stanley/DeWalt Ford); Aric Almirola (No. 43 Smithfield Foods Ford)

Key Changes

The dismissal of Parrott late in the year necessitated a change atop the pit box for Almirola and the No. 43 team. Trent Owens, the nephew of Richard Petty and a longtime crew chief in the Nationwide Series, has been hired to replace Parrott. This will be Owens' first foray as a full-time Cup crew chief.

Biggest Offseason Question

Yes, RPM is a small team with limited resources and therefore there is a ceiling on what the two-car team can seemingly accomplish. But despite its limitations, RPM still should be better than it showed last season.

Facing a crossroads, the question team officials must ask themselves this offseason is, where does the organization go from here?

Most pressing, the team must decide what to do with Ambrose. Now with five full seasons of Cup under his belt, he should be more consistently competitive on ovals, and yet the 37-year-old didn't have a single top-five finish last season. That's unacceptable.

Ambrose has stated openly that unless he can find Victory Lane in 2014 -- preferably on an oval -- he will likely head back to his native Australia to race V8 supercars. And while the jovial driver will be missed, RPM shouldn't feel compelled to bring Ambrose back unless he demonstrates noticeable gains in performance.

NASCAR is flush with a host of young talents deserving of a Cup ride. In the long run, it might be in the team's best interests to go this route rather than pin its hopes on a driver who, outside of Sonoma and Watkins, doesn't have much shot of winning.

Outlook

Either RPM will continue to build a stable foundation in which the organization can begin regularly challenging for victories, or there will be massive changes at this time next year. It's an either-or case with little room in between.

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