TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) - Crew chief Mike Ford was back at the track Friday, focusing on his new job with Aric Almirola instead of the past with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Ford was hired by Richard Petty Motorsports this week as crew chief for Almirola, and his first race is Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. He sat out the first nine races of the season as he waited for a job after his December dismissal from JGR.
Despite guiding Denny Hamlin to 17 wins and a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in all six of their seasons together, Ford was let go when JGR had a chance to hire championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb. There were no open Cup crew chief jobs when Ford hit the job market.
"That was pretty bothersome for me because there were a lot of shifts and the timing of that was not good,'' Ford said. "That is why you haven't seen me for a little bit because there wasn't anything at that point.''
Still, Ford didn't want to dwell too much on JGR. His firing was a bit bizarre, though, because the No. 11 team had been quite successful under Ford. Hamlin fell just short of winning the 2010 championship but had a steep drop-off last year. That, coupled with Grubb being let go by Tony Stewart after guiding Stewart to the title, made Ford expendable.
Ford hinted at "a lot of outside influence'' spoiling the last few seasons at JGR.
"I want to get something real clear: Me and Denny still get along. I love Denny to death,'' he said. "This is business. 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.
"It just was time to go. It was time to move on. I don't have any problems with Denny, and I still have a lot of good friends over there. That is life. You move on and you continue on.''
Hamlin was pleased to see Ford back in the garage.
"I can't believe it took this long for the guy to get a job,'' Hamlin said. "He, in my opinion, is one of the top five crew chiefs in this garage. I think he is the reason we won that many races when we were together. "
But Hamlin also acknowledged the internal issues Ford fought.
"Within our shop, he didn't always have the cooperation of everyone and sometimes people didn't believe in him as much as they should, or vice versa,'' Hamlin said. "You have to have everyone in the shop back you 100 percent, and I think he felt everyone didn't have his back at Gibbs.''
Now Ford has a fresh start at RPM, which tabbed him to replace Greg Erwin after just nine races with Almirola.
Almirola, who was hired in January when AJ Allmendinger left to join Penske Racing, has just one top-10 finish and is ranked 23rd in the standings. He said he was looking forward to learning from Ford, who has also worked with Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott.
"To come in and play that mentor role like he did with Denny, that is something I am looking forward to with Mike,'' Almirola said. "To have someone that can talk to me on the radio and kind of teach me along the way ... from the leadership standpoint, I think Mike is going to be a huge asset. I am looking forward to being the guy that gets to drive the race car and let Mike tell me what to do.''