Team synergy has Almirola set to advance in NASCAR Playoffs

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 28: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, drives during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on September 28, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

For the first time in his seven-year fulltime career Aric Almirola is on his way to advance in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. He’s not just making an appearance on the big stage, he’s ready to contend. And he has been contending.

The 34-year old Tampa, Florida-native is in his first season driving the No. 10 Ford Fusion for the championship winning Stewart-Haas Racing team. And there is a smile on his face and confidence in his heart as he prepares for Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course (at 2 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Almirola is ranked sixth among the 16 Playoff drivers with a 23-point cushion on the field – only two points behind fifth place Joey Logano and a hefty six points over seventh place Kyle Larson.

He didn’t luck his way into contention and he hasn’t coasted on the first-year accomplishment with his team.

“I think we hone in on what we do and we show up and put our head down and go to work, and some weekends it’s good enough to run up front and win, and some weekends it’s not, but our goal is to go and maximize every week and these last couple weeks we’ve showed up to the race track with speed and run up front and we’ve been kind of riding that high and riding the momentum.”

With eight races remaining in the 2018 season, Almirola already has almost twice as many top-10 finishes (12) as his next best full season effort (seven in 2014). His 116 laps led this year is almost equal to his total (118) of the previous six full seasons combined.

This is the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs he has qualified for since his lone premier series victory in 2014 (Daytona). And having this most legitimate and promising opportunity to contend at the highest level is clearly something Almirola could get used to.

He has two top-10 finishes – sixth (at Las Vegas) and fifth (at Richmond) – in the opening two Playoff races and earned a healthy points cushion as the series debuts on the 2.28-mile, 17-turn road course this weekend.

“We’ve been kind of riding that high and that momentum from showing up at all sorts of different race tracks with speed, and our team is coming together,” Almirola explained.

“Our team is gelling. [Crew chief] Johnny [Klausmeier] and myself are getting on the same page. We’re a young team. Most of our guys on our team are in their late 20s and early 30s. It’s Johnny’s first year of being a crew chief at anything. … And this is my first year with the organization, so we’ve kind of gone through some growing pains and continue to go through some, but building together and working together has been so much fun and I feel like we’ve had a lot of success and we’ve run really good, and our ceiling for potential is so high.”

Almirola conceded that the elimination race this weekend will be a good test for himself and the team. He’s never won on a road course. His best showing on either of the Monster Energy Series’ longtime road courses – in Sonoma, Calif. or Watkins Glen, N.Y. – is an eighth-place finish at Sonoma just this summer.

In fact, Almirola noted that in preparation for this job with the championship Stewart-Haas Racing organization, he had made it a personal priority to raise his road course skills.

“Going into this year I would say on a scale of 1-10 [I was] about a two,” Almirola said laughing. “Slightly above novice, but I have put so much work and so much effort into it this year, knowing that I would be the weak link, knowing that the cars were gonna be good, and knowing that I was gonna have the tools and resources at my disposal to get better, and to have teammates that are really good at it to lean on.

“That’s the first time in my career that I’ve had the car, the tools, the people, the teammates and so I’ve put a full-out effort on getting better at road course racing because I knew that has been my weakest link on all the tracks that we go to, and I feel like I’m probably a seven now.

“I don’t think I’m even close to being good enough to challenge to win on the road courses that we go to, but I think that I’m very competitive.”

This weekend Almirola doesn’t necessarily have to win to sustain what’s been a career-best season. He’s proven every bit up for the new job at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has all four Fords qualified for the Playoffs including teammates fourth place Kevin Harvick (seven wins), eighth place Kurt Busch (one win) and 13th place Clint Bowyer (two wins), who sits only four points shy of that transfer position. They are the only team in the Monster Energy Series with all four cars in the postseason.

And that’s exactly as Almirola would expect it to be – happy and fulfilled to prove himself up for the challenge.

“I don’t even feel like we’re close to it yet just because we’re still new and working together, so I’ve enjoyed that,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed these last couple weeks have been a lot of fun. The intensity level certainly picks up in the Playoffs and rising to that challenge and showing that we are capable, I think we’ve proven that the last couple weeks with the runs that we’ve had, and then kind of riding that high and that momentum and then this week announcing we’ve got a new partnership with Valley Technical Academy, it just feels right, like everything is going right and you see that in sports and especially in racing, where when things get on a roll they just kind of continue to go and I feel like we’re right there.

“I feel like we’re on the brink of just continuing to keep this momentum going.”

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