Almirola earns a Playoff berth for the third time in the NASCAR Cup Series with Stewart Haas Racing. The Round of 16 starts at Darlington Raceway.
After spending the majority of his career driving the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 car, Aric Almirola took his talents to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018. The Tampa, Florida native immediately saw results, as he qualified for the playoffs then, with a win at Talladega he was able to advance to the Round of 8 for the first time in his career.
2020 Redemption Looks Sweet after 2019 Playoff Run
Almirola took a step back last season, going winless, and failing to advance out of the first round of the playoffs. But in 2020, the 36-year old has put together arguably his best season.
Entering the playoffs, Almirola has already set career bests in top-five finishes (5) and laps led (287). His average finish of 12.7 is also the best of his career to this point in the season. Those stats are the reason Almirola enters the playoffs eighth in total points. Despite his career-best season to this point, Almirola is heading into the playoffs as a sleeper. Why? Because he has yet to visit victory lane this year. In a Ford teleconference with media, Almirola is embracing his role as a driver who’s not exactly a favorite.
“It makes no difference to me what anybody thinks. And that’s an attitude I’ve had for a long time,” says Almirola. “I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with [crew chief Mike] Bugarewicz and the guys on my team.”
Stewart Haas Racing Crew Chief Swap
Almirola’s success this season is a bit shocking, considering Stewart-Haas Racing’s decision for an offseason crew chief swap. Mike Bugarewicz made a move to Almirola’s team. And Almirola’s former crew chief Johnny Klausmeier made a switch to work with Clint Bowyer’s team in the No. 14 car. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Almirola and Bugarewicz are working harder to gain chemistry with limited time together. Even with the restrictions, Almirola and Bugarewicz are building a strong relationship that is allowing Almirola’s confidence to skyrocket. Never a better time than as they head into the playoffs.
“Our relationship has obviously grown a lot…,” said Almirola. “We’ve built that [a strong] relationship, which has, I feel like made an impact on how we perform. However, he has challenged me in ways that I haven’t been challenged before. Just from the fact that he is probably the most intense crew chief that I’ve ever had.
Darlington and Bristol are Biggest First Round Challenge
While Almirola is optimistic about his chances in the first round, he recognizes that Darlington and Bristol, two of the three first-round tracks, are not historically his stronger tracks. Almirola has an average finish of 17.6, and only one top-ten in ten starts at Darlington. He also has four straight finishes of 29th or worse at Bristol. The one top-ten at Darlington came in his last start at the track, and he knows that doing everything possible to stay out of trouble is key at both tracks, especially in a playoff format, where every point matters.
“You still have to be perfect [at Darlington]. You can’t go to Darlington and wipe the right side off of it and finish 29th.” said Almirola. “You can’t scrape the wall and have a fender cut down a tire and go two laps down during a green-flag cycle. You can’t afford those kinds of mistakes, so you have to be mindful of that, and the same thing at Bristol,” Almirola continued.
“Both of those places you typically run right on the wall, so there’s very little margin for error and that’s something that’s very mindful for me is that you’ve got to get 100 percent out of everything, but you can’t try to get 102 percent out of anything because that’s when mistakes happen.”
Consistency is Working, But a Win would Mean a Lot
Coming into the playoffs, Almirola sits in the 12th seed following the points reset, so he’s even with Austin Dillon and Cole Custer, each of whom has a win. The Stewart-Haas driver may have his work cut out for him in the first round, but if Almirola can sneak through, Talladega awaits in the Round of 12, the same track he has a win in 2018 to advance into the Round of 8. While he has not seen victory lane yet, Almirola’s consistency is keeping him in contention, regardless of the track he’s racing.