Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – Perhaps it was the angst and palpable disappointment on Aric Almirola’s face and in his voice even following his best outing of the 2018 season last week – a third place at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – that so powerfully displayed his competitive spirit.
The 34-year old had led 42 laps – the third largest single-day tally out front in his seven-year career – and yet finished third behind the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ championship leaders, Almirola’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch.
After a few days to reflect on the outing, Almirola arrives at Pocono Raceway for Sunday’s Gander Mountain 400 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) never having felt more motivated to win.
“We’re going to be a contender, we’re going to be tough to beat,’’ Almirola said of his No. 10 Smithfield Ford team. “That’s what I keep telling everybody. We’re so new and so young. We’re 20 races into working together.
“We’re good, we’re not great. We have potential to be great because I don’t feel like we’ve reached our max potential just because everything is so new and we’re still learning each other, learning what I like in the race cars and all of those things.’’
Almirola, who spent the first six years of his Monster Energy Series career driving the famed No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, understandably feels that this SHR team, in this season, in this stretch, presents the best-case scenario for him to hoist a Cup winner’s trophy again.
He scored his first career victory in the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July of 2014. It earned him a Playoff shot and although he was certainly a fan favorite to advance, he finished 16th among the 16 championship-eligible drivers. His only top-10 in that 10-race playoff run was – perhaps ironically – a sixth place at New Hampshire.
Far from being disenfranchised, Almirola became even more determined to join the championship elite. His work this season at SHR has already earned the Tampa native a “career year.’’ And there are still six races remaining before the playoffs start.
Almirola has nine top-10s through the opening 20 races and his 113 laps led so far is a career best. Also very telling, his average finish is an impressive 12.6. And Almirola sits 11th in the points standings with a sizeable 53-point advantage over 12th-place Jimmie Johnson.
Almirola, however, clearly doesn’t want to “point” his way into the championship mix. He wants to win outright. And for him, that time has been long coming. Last weekend’s near miss only reinforced the feelings.
“Now I have this opportunity here at Stewart-Haas Racing and equipment is not an excuse,’’ Almirola said. “We have the best of everything. We have everything we need to go out and compete for wins. It’s up to me and my team.
“So, yeah, I do feel like there is justification running up front and racing with [defending Monster Energy Series champ] Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – all those guys who run up front on a regular basis.
“It makes me feel like I’m capable and I can do it. That does make me feel better. At least I’ll be able to sleep at night knowing that, given the right opportunity, I could perform at that level. Now we’ve just got to figure out how to win.’’
Pocono’s 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle,” has been a particular upside in Almirola’s season. In five of six starts at tracks two-miles or longer, Almirola has only one finish (accident at Daytona in July) outside the top-12. His seventh-place finish at Pocono in June was his first top-15 there.
And it’s the grand possibilities that Almirola expects on the schedule’s “second visits” that excite and provide promise.
“I feel like going back to some of these tracks that we’ll now have notes,’’ Almirola said. “A lot of these tracks all year long we’ve shown up kind of blind. We had no real notebook.
“Now we’re going back to these races where we have a notebook. WE changed these things in practice, we’ll start already with that in our car. We’ll be able to fine-tune on that and make that better. We’ve learned what not to do. … It’s as much learning what to do as what not to do. It’s just building a foundation and a notebook.’’
Almirola acknowledged that while the expectations are high, so is his learning curve. But the big picture has never looked brighter. His teammate Harvick leads the series with six wins, his teammate Clint Bowyer has two wins and his teammate Kurt Busch is the top-ranked driver without a win. All four SHR cars look poised to make the Playoffs – and for Almirola that will be a big, BIG deal.
“When you look at the teams that are very successful, the big three (Harvick, Busch and Truex) that everyone talks about, they’ve all been working together for three, four, five, six years now,’’ Almirola said. “They’ve got a foundation.
“That’s what has me excited about my relationship with [crew chief] Johnny Klausmeier, my engineers, this whole 10 team, is that we’re young. We’re all a young group of guys all in our early 30s. We’re learning each other, we’re new. And we’re already starting to compete with these guys, 20 races working together.
“I feel like we have so much potential to continue to get better.’’