With newly created engineering and research-and-development departments, Richard Petty Motorsports finally has the freedom to explore new directions in the preparation of its race cars.

"It's an important step for Richard Petty Motorsports to make," said Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 RPM Ford. "Instead of just being a customer (of Roush Fenway Racing), we're starting to think for ourselves, and hopefully we'll give ourselves a competitive advantage.

"That's what we aspire to be. We want to be the very best team we can be, and we're sure not going to beat anybody by copying them. We've got to come up with our own ideas to some degree."

RPM will continue to purchase their engines and chassis from Roush Fenway, but Drew Blickensderfer, Ambrose's crew chief, likened the organizations new capability to the sort of vendor/client relationship that exists between Richard Childress Racing and Furniture Row Racing, where the flow of information and innovation goes both ways.

"We're a customer of Roush, and we've always been a customer who's always had to do what Roush has done," Blickensderfer said. "We didn't have our own two feet to stand on. We have that now. So we can be a customer like Furniture is to RCR.

"We can be a customer, but take that customer product and make it better – or try to make it better. We've never been able to do that. Now we can take what they have and work on it ourselves."

A critical mass of resources has allowed RPM to spread its wings. Smithfield Foods has expanded its sponsorship of the No. 43 Ford driven by Aric Almirola. The Air Force has returned for a two-race deal, announced Wednesday, as Almirola's sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

"We're probably in the best shape we've been in the last three or four years," team co-owner Richard Petty said. "Now we've been able to go into more of an engineering department and do a little bit more R&D on our own from where we've been at. We used to do it all. We used to build the motors and the cars and took them to the race track and did [everything].

"Now, with the way NASCAR has the rules, everything is kind of cut-and-dried, so there's not as much of that going. You have to have the engineers then to really tweak stuff. It used to be that we got close and it worked, so we feel like that we're way better off than we've been on that part of the deal. I guess we'll have to have a little talk with the drivers and get them to step up a little, too."