With his presence greatly missed, for the first time in a month the namesake of Richard Petty Motorsports will return to the track this weekend at Richmond International Raceway.
Following the March 25 death of his wife Lynda, Petty skipped the previous three Sprint Cup races. The couple married in 1958 and shared a close relationship, with Richard often crediting his wife for playing an instrumental role in a career that included seven championships and a record 200 victories in NASCAR's premiere division.
"I know he's itching to get back to the racetrack," said RPM driver Aric Almirola. "He's our leader. He's the guy we all look up to, and I'm excited about having him at the track. I think it's going to be good medicine for him."
Yet even as he mourned, Petty kept in close contact with the team bearing his name. Using cousin and former crew chief Dale Inman as an intermediary, Petty received reports about the status of the two-car organization each Monday at the team's headquarters.
"You can't take the racer out of that guy," Almirola said. "He's not going to sit at home and just sit around and do nothing. He's been watching the practices and watching qualifying and watching the races.
"He's still heavily involved, and he's still been paying attention for sure. He just hasn't been at the racetrack. He knows everything that's been going on. He knows what we've been struggling with, the things we've been doing good at."
In the first race without RPM's patriarch, Almirola and teammate Marcos Ambrose scored a pair of top-10 finishes at Martinsville Speedway, though neither has done so since. But Richmond, a 0.75-mile oval, comes at an opportune time for Almirola, who has posted top-10s in both short track races this season including a career-best third-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Petty's return will be more than just an emotional boost, according to Almirola. As he often does the 30-year-old will lean on Petty, who can usually be found atop the team's transporter intently monitoring all on track activity, for advice.
"During practice he'll stand up on top of the hauler and he'll watch me, he'll watch other people, he'll watch the other cars and Dale Inman will stand up there, too," Almirola said. "And after practice they'll come down and they'll say, 'Well, so-and-so is running the middle of (Turns) 3 and 4 and his corner splints were a tenth and a half better.' That's the one thing that I think I pick up the most from Richard and Dale when they're at the racetrack."