LOUDON, NH — Sunday’s win in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 was a long time coming for Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola. The Florida native hadn’t won a race in his last 98 tries. He sat 27th in points, 232 markers back behind the final playoff spot. With only five races left in the regular season, counting this weekend’s at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Almirola was going to have to end a near three year winless drought in order to get into this year’s postseason.
What’s wild about this is, his only other two wins came on superspeedway’s in 2014 at Daytona and again in 2018 at Talladega. He entered with a 98 race winless streak and no momentum. He was 232 points behind the cutline for a playoff berth.
That didn’t come into play after all as he took his car to victory and became the 13th different winner on the season.
“Man, they’re all good. I’ve only got three, so every one is pretty sweet. I haven’t forgotten any of them,” Almirola said.
“That’s a good problem to have when you win enough to where you forget some of the wins. I don’t have that problem. I remember each one. They’ve all been very sweet for their own right, right?
“To win on the anniversary of Richard Petty’s 200th win, to do it in the 43 car, to bring that car back to Victory Lane for the first time in, like, 30 years, that was a special day.
“To do it at Daytona, a place that I grew up as a kid going to watch races there, it’s only two hours from home, that was a really special day. My first Cup win ever.
“Then to show up to SHR with a lot of high hopes and a lot of expectations to make the Playoffs in 2018, then to run as good as we did in the Playoffs, have some things happen. We came here and gave a win away with a car we should have won with. We went to Dover and let one get away. Then we were able to rebound and go to Talladega and win and advance in the Playoffs. That one was sweet for its own right.
“Then you come here. Yeah, to win at a non-restrictor plate race… My wife hates the fact that I’ve only won at restrictor plate races. She’s told me for years, she’s like, Honey, I know you always have a good shot when we go to Daytona or Talladega. I so badly want you to win somewhere else.
“So, yeah, it feels good to be able to capitalize on fast race cars. This year’s been a struggle. Since we won the Duel, we went into the Daytona 500 with very high hopes and a very fast race car, wrecked out early.
“From that point forward, man, it has been a battle. To battle and fight the way that we’ve fought, and sometimes literally fight, to just continue to grind it out and show up to the racetrack every week with a new hope that we can go get the job done this week, and today we were able to do that.”
When being in a contract year and driving for a team of SHR’s caliber, if you don’t make the playoffs, it’s not a good look. That’s why his win on Sunday was even bigger in the sense that his playoff streak of four straight years continues.
“I think that would have been devastating,” Almirola said on if he didn’t make the playoffs this year for he and his sponsor Smithfield. “Ever since I got to SHR, I made the Playoffs every year. This year it didn’t look so good. It didn’t look like that was going to be a possibility unless we won.
“So, yeah, I mean, that feels good. They are a great sponsor, not only for us, but for the sport. They’ve been in the sport for 10 years now. They’re one of very few sponsors that take a majority of the car. That is a huge deal not only for us as a race team but for the support. The fact that they have that continuity with the fans, people see the 10 car, they know that’s the bacon car, right, that’s the Smithfield car.
“Yeah, to continue to have success for them and put them in the limelight, win races, be in the Playoffs, that’s what they deserve.”
But, it wasn’t looking good entering Sunday.
Almirola, had no top five finishes in the first 21 races run. He had just two top 10’s at that with 26 total laps led. Three of his first four finishes were 30th or worse. Six of the first eight were 20th or worse. In fact, by time we got to the 16th race of the year in Sonoma last month, he had 12 finishes outside the top 20 including six straight.
How hard was it to keep the faith through these troublesome times?
“Yeah, I mean, you always do,” said Almirola on his confidence. “When you run good it’s easier, right? You have a lot of confidence. People don’t understand. People are just always like, Man, you got to keep your head up, you got to have confidence. But that’s based on results. I mean, you can’t just fake that stuff.
“You can go to the racetrack with hopes and you can go to the racetrack feeling good about it, like I did this weekend. Our 750 package has been good, especially here lately.”
As to what’s gone wrong this year, Almirola said that it’s not one thing. Its been a dismal year on a number of factors. They just couldn’t get it all right.
“If I could pin it on one thing, we could fix it immediately,” he said. “It has alluded us. We just have not been as good, especially with the 550 package, as we need to be. It’s not from lack of effort. It’s not from lack of just want to. It’s we’re scratching our heads. We can’t figure out the race cars we need to bring to the racetrack. It’s been very challenging.”
This week though was different. This week he knew they had a chance to figure it all out. The pressure was on in the sense that he knew that they had to win but the confidence matched the pressure for Sunday’s race too.
As to why?
It’s because he’s just so comfortable in New Hampshire. This is actually one of his favorite tracks as well as one of his best tracks outside of superspeedways. He had this race circled as a spot to get going and to potentially get into the playoffs. He called his shot when no one else was looking his way.
“I knew coming here that this being one of my favorite racetracks, this is going to be an opportunity for us,” he continued. “We were pretty good here last year. Talking to Buga before the race, they made some changes based on last year. I was like, Man, this is an opportunity for us.
“On my calendar knowing that we had to win between now and Daytona, I had here and Daytona really marked on my calendar as these are the two places we’ve got opportunities to figure out how to make it in the Playoffs and to win. Today coming up here, I just felt good about it. But you never know.
“So we started the race and the car was good, not great, but it was good. Buga just kept making adjustments. Every time down pit road, we gained spots on pit road or stayed even. Our pit crew did a phenomenal job. Every time the adjustments made the car a little bit better, a little bit better. Then finally that last adjustment he made for those last two runs, the car was just lights out. I knew if I could keep pace for a few laps, I would have him on the long run. We were able to do that.
“I think just our 750 package has been good, like I said. This racetrack has been one of our best racetracks I feel like as an organization. We’ve always run really well up here. For me in particular, it’s been one of my favorite and best racetracks.
“So, yeah, I think when I come here, I feel good about it. I know what I need out of the race car. I know what to ask for adjustments in the race car. So I’m able to help lead that a little bit better here than I am at other places.
“I think coming here everything kind of lined up perfectly, and we had a fast race car, and finally we capitalized on that. I’ve had fast race cars here and other places, too, and we’ve had bad pit stops, loose wheels, late-race cautions, just a lot of different things happen that we’ve let it slip away.
“Today we were able to capitalize and get the job done.”
Almirola, charged hard in a wild day on the Magic Mile and brought his No. 10 Ford home fifth in the second stage. In the final stage, he showed why we can’t overlook him.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver steadily moved up. He passed Brad Keselowski on a longer run once we got going in the final stage. Not long later, he got by Ryan Blaney for the top spot on Lap 245. With one more stop left in the race but the uncertainty on how far we’d go in the race, how would they manage this?
Darkness was settling in. NASCAR warned teams that if they feel like it was getting too dark then they’d give a heads up of 10 laps left without a possibility of overtime. That was staring them down but so was the fact that they needed one more stop too.
The big thing in front of them was a playoff berth.
Keselowski hit pit lane from third on Lap 247. Almirola and Blaney did so two laps later. Meanwhile, Matt DiBenedetto was trying to throw his own hail mary and hope to just run the daylight out. Could they make it to the end? Not if it’s a full distance. But, what happens if a yellow comes out to chew up some of the daylight? What happens if it gets dark faster and he’s leading?
So, despite not pitting since Lap 187, he remained out.
Almirola, had a money stop and exited ahead of Blaney off pit road. He was ahead of Keselowski when blending in while Blaney was now third among guys that had already pit now for their final time. Was this his race now to lose?
Despite their best efforts, darkness wasn’t here quick enough so DiBenedetto had to pit on Lap 273. That handed the lead over to Almirola. While this was happening, Christopher Bell had gotten by Keselowski and was coming on strong.
It didn’t end up mattering.
NASCAR ended the race eight laps shy of the scheduled distance and Bell while coming hard, didn’t have quite enough to really amount a serious charge at the win against Almirola as the SHR driver scored just his third career Cup Series victory.
“Just unloading with a fast race car,” he said of his day. “Taking off from the get-go, early in the race knowing we had a fast race car, marching our way through the field, I think we started 22nd. Kind of steadily marching our way through the field, making adjustments every pit stop.
“Every adjustment we made, it made the car better, with the exception of one. Early in the race we made one adjustment, it wasn’t very good. We went immediately back on that and started making some other adjustments. We were getting the car faster and faster and faster.
“Yeah, I mean, Kevin Harvick always says: You can’t drive a slow car fast. The guys just brought me a great race car. We weren’t making wholesale changes on it so we were allowing our pit crew to do their job. They were ripping off some fast pit stops. We were gaining spots on pit road. The adjustments were making the car better. We just consistently worked our way towards the front of the field.”
Almirola stopped short of taking much of the credit. He wanted to make it perfectly clear that he’s the driver and has a solid group of people around him that are just as important to this win too.
“It’s not about just me winning the race today. I mean, there’s so many people that it takes to get me to the racetrack, to be able to drive the race car.
“Buga and I obviously get a lot of the credit as him being the head of the team as the crew chief and me being the driver. There’s so many people back at the shop that it takes to build the cars.
“Honestly we’ve worked so hard this year, not only because we’ve been behind and trying to play catch-up, but because we’ve wrecked a lot of race cars. I’ve had more DNF’s this year than I have, like, combined in my entire career. It’s been an awful year for bringing home wrecked race cars. It’s really challenging when you do that on the organization. They’re constantly trying to rebuild race cars.
“This feels so sweet to be able to do that for all those men and women back at the shop as much as it does for our team.”