The stars were aligning for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season to be a big one for Aric Almirola. The Tampa native had seen his Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup last year. His Tampa Bay Rays made it to the World Series. His Tampa Bay Buccaneers had just won the Super Bowl which was also hosted in Tampa at that. Would the west Florida native have a banner season himself?
Unfortunately, 2021 couldn’t have started off in a much worse way for Almirola. As we sit here today, five races into the season, Almirola has yet to score a top 10 result and sits a disappointing 26th in the standings heading into Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN) at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. In fact, three of his five finishes have seen him come home outside of the top 30 at that.
Almirola says that a couple of big parts of this has dismal start have been bad luck and driver errors though. He was collected in a crash in the Lap 13 “big one” in the season opening Daytona 500. He got caught up in a crash with Ryan Blaney two weeks later in Homestead then cut down a tire and crashed a week after that in Las Vegas.
“I think a lot of it is just luck and the circumstances and just honestly mistakes on my part on a couple of them,” Almirola told me on Tuesday. “The Daytona 500 was just bad luck. There’s nothing I could have done any different. I was running second and got an aggressive push from behind from Christopher Bell, got turned and was wrecked. I don’t know what I could have done any different. That’s a circumstance out of our control. You go the very next week on the Daytona road course and I was running in the top 10 and just spun out on the infield portion of the road course. I made a mistake and got us way behind on track position late in the race and clawed our way back from 30th place to a 16th or 17th place finish. We went to Homestead, I made a mistake again, two weeks in-a-row. We had a decent car, not great, but we worked on it to get it better and I wrecked with Ryan Blaney. That resulted in a poor finish. We went to Vegas and we were off. Not good. Then bad luck. A piece of debris got inside the left front wheel and knocked the valve stem off the left front during the run. We got a flat tire and wrecked and finished last.
“I think a lot of it is bad luck and circumstances but there’s also been mistakes on my part as well. We’ve just got to clean it up. We’ve got to have better cars. The drivers got to do his job and not make mistakes and we’ve got to have luck turn and start going our way and against us.”
Last week things did start to turn back around as he brought his No. 10 Ford home in 11th at Phoenix. Now, can he keep it up and start to stack momentum? He said that Phoenix was a big step and that they just have to take the rest of this season week by week.
“That old saying holds true, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. That’s our main focus,” Almirola continued. “We’ve got to take it one race at a time and focus on just trying to score as many stage points as we can and try to get the best finish as we can.”
He says that stage points are going to be the key, but in order to score them, you have to have a better week prior. See, without qualifying for most of these races, one of the metrics points to base the starting positions off of are the previous weeks results. If you have a bad race and are far back in the points as Almirola is now, you will get a bad starting spot. A bad starting spot can ruin your day.
“Starting in the back is a dagger every week,” he said. “That’s the hard part about where we’re at now in not only do we not get practice, but when you have a bad weekend, it doesn’t end with that weekend. It carries over to the next week. It used to, when you had a bad weekend, you could put it behind you and go to the race track the next weekend and have a fresh start. You practice, you qualify and if you qualify up front, you get a good starting position and pit selection. You get to start completely over with that brand new weekend.
“Now, when you have a bad weekend, it really carries over to the next weekend because you have a bad starting spot and a bad pit selection. A bad pit selection usually means that you’re pitting around other cars that are competitive and on the lead lap so you’re constantly going to be battling them getting in and out of your pit box. It just makes everything more difficult and harder to dig out of these holes. So it is a challenge with starting in the back and not scoring stage points in the first stage. It’s hard to come through the field and score stage points in Stage 1 when you start in the back. It’s just a really different approach and set of circumstances in starting the race based off where you finished last time and your pit select being off that. It definitely makes the momentum harder to swing and turn around.”
One thing some would think would be that Almirola and his team could just go off strategy in the races that allow to do so. Maybe risk pit strategy to get to the front. Almriola says that you really can’t do that in NASCAR anymore, especially without practice or qualifying. You don’t know the kind of car that you have before the race goes green and if you don’t have a fast car, strategy isn’t an open way to the front due to how the sport has evolved.
“At this point, we’ve got to take the cards that are dealt to us when the race starts,” Almirola said. “A lot of it is how your car is when the race starts. It’s hard to gamble with a car that’s not as competitive as it needs to be. You have a lot more options when you have a fast race car. You can pick and choose your strategy because you can be a little more control of your race and not worry about going multiple laps down when you do roll down pit road.
“Every once in a while you can squeak something out on strategy but for the most part, you don’t really win races on wild strategy anymore unless you have a fast race car. Somebody else is going to get on that same strategy and going to have a fast race car. We’ve got a lot of smart engineers in the garage area and crew chiefs. They see all the different strategies and scenarios and things that play out. If a handful of cars get on that strategy, and it’s the race winning strategy, you have to have a faster race car than all of those other guys to be the race winning car on that strategy. That’s why a lot of it depends on when you get to the race track and see where your car is competitive relative to the field.”
The problem also lies is that we’ve have five different winners already and only 11 wildcard spots left remaining. Almirola, has just two career wins and the last coming in 2018. That win though was in the playoffs, so he’s actually been a wildcard driver in each of the last three years with Stewart-Haas Racing. With more and more winners coming this season, it’s going to make it all that much harder for Almirola to make the playoffs as a wildcard as a result of that. He may eventually have to win and that’s something that he’s not done in the regular season since July 2014.
“I think it’s going to be tough to point our way in at this point but it’s possible,” said Almirola. “It’s certainly possible if we get on a run like we did last summer where we were running in the top five all of the race and scoring a ton of stage points. I think we went eight weeks in a row with top five finishes. So if we do that, we’ll climb through the points standing really quickly. But, we’ve got to get there first.”
Almriola says the key remains the same, they have to get back on track. They have to get better race cars and he has to be better inside of them. In saying that, his confidence is still high as he believes in himself as well as his team.
“I am confident. We have a really good race team. We did it last year. It’s possible. We’ve just got to get back on track. We’ve got to get consistent on running in the top 10 and consistent running in the top five and find ourselves in positions to win races. We got off to a rough start. Life doesn’t always go your way but it happens. It doesn’t always stay that way forever, especially when you have a great race team like we have.
Does this all add pressure to him? He’s on a one-year deal too. At the moment, his future past 2021 isn’t certain. How much does this lack of success this year and maybe even not making the playoffs play into future contract talks?
“I don’t know that we feel more pressure because of that because our pressure is we’re not performing like we should and get the results like we know we should. We feel pressure to turn our season around and start running like we’re capable. I’m on my fourth season at Stewart-Haas Racing and have never gotten off to a start like this. We’ve always found ourselves in the top 10 or 12 in the points at this part of the season. Usually we’re comfortably in on points and thinking on about just being consistent and trying to win races when we have cars capable. Never have I been in a situation to where we are now to where we’re way on the outside trying to crawl your way back into contention.