A case of deja blue

Aric Almirola drives the #43 STP Ford through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 27, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Aric Almirola drives the #43 STP Ford through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 27, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

MARTINSVILLE, Va.—When Aric Almirola’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford pulled out of the garage for Saturday’s Sprint Cup Series practice at Martinsville, it recalled the halcyon days of Petty Enterprises when team owner Richard Petty won 15 Cup races at the .526-mile short track.

Now, Aric Almirola is carrying the striking Petty blue and red color of the STP-sponsored car, and he’s fully aware of the history that accompanies him.

“They’ve had a lot of success here, and any time you come here with the 43 car is special, but to come here with the STP colors on the car is that much more special with that iconic paint scheme,” Almirola said Saturday morning before practice for Sunday’s STP 500. “It’s such a neat weekend for us to have STP sponsoring the race and seeing how involved they are and how they’re activating at the race track and all they’re doing.

“It’s just a lot of fun to be a part of it. Any time you get to drive that STP 43 car it’s cool to see the reaction of all the fans and all the crew members, because you’ve got to think that most of the crew members and guys working in the garage, they’re all guys that grew up watching the sport, too. So they’ll walk up and are like, ‘Man, that’s awesome. That car looks so cool,’ and everybody loves it when that car shows up.”

SHORT STROKES

Martinsville ace Denny Hamlin paced Saturday’s first practice session with a lap at 97.113 mph, and defending STP 500 winner Kurt Busch topped Happy Hour at 97.098 mph…

Eight-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson slowed during the first practice, thinking he might have lost a cylinder. But the crew diagnosed and fixed an electrical issue, and Johnson was soon back up to speed, posting the second fastest time in the session at 96.988 mph…

A day before the actual race, drivers already were showing their short-track tempers. Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick gave Jamie McMurray’s Chevrolet a tap during Happy Hour, upset with what he considered continued blocking. Austin Dillon and Danica Patrick battled for five straight laps, trading some paint in the process.

If Saturday’s practices are any indication, Sunday’s race could have some spectacular fireworks.

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