For Aric Almirola, 2016 was originally a season worth looking forward to. He had just missed out on qualifying for the Chase in 2015, but earned a career-best three top 5 finishes. There was a little momentum.
However, in the offseason, the team began building their own chassis to supplement the equipment they have been getting from Roush Fenway Racing. The first of the home-built chassis took to the track at Las Vegas in March. As a result, 2016 would be a year of teething issues. Despite this, the team still has a strong relationship with Roush Fenway Racing and the use of Roush-Yates engines.
Sadly, having a relationship with Roush Fenway Racing is not quite as good as it once was.
The season started well with some consistent finishes. Entering Martinsville in April, Almirola was 13th in points. Then, the engine went on the No. 43. The last-place finish dropped Almirola out of the top 20 in points. He would not return there for the rest of the year.
From that point, it was like a light was switched. There was only one disappointing race in that short stretch prior to Martinsville (a 24th-place finish at Las Vegas after qualifying in the top 10). After Martinsville, decent runs became few and far between. In 2015, Almirola finished in the top 5 in both Dover races. 2016 saw him crash out at Dover in May, ruining a chance to increase momentum.
By the time the Chase came along, Almirola was down to 27th in points and hadn’t recorded a top 10 finish all season. His best finish to that point had been a 12th in the Daytona 500. It was then that Richard Petty Motorsports chose to make a change, re-assigning Trent Owens to another role within the team and naming Drew Blickensderfer as Almirola’s crew chief.
Overall, there was actually a small improvement in Almirola’s form over the final ten races of the season. Unfortunately, that was tempered by two more last-place finishes at Kansas and Homestead. As a result, the actual improvement in raw numbers was minimal. Under Blickensderfer, Almirola finished roughly one position better over the final ten races as compared to the 26 under Owens. Take out the two 40th-place finishes and the average finish would have been nearly five positions better.
Despite that general lack of improvement, Almirola did score his one and only top 10 finish of the season at Talladega in October. Even with the top 10 (an eighth), he was overshadowed within his own team by Brian Scott, who finished a career-best second.
Time spent in the garage area getting repairs after wall contact led to the last-place finish in Homestead. All the major attrition that occurred in the Ford EcoBoost 400 occurred in the final 30 laps of the race, meaning that all the drivers (Carl Edwards, Martin Truex, Jr., Ty Dillon, Regan Smith, etc.) that dropped out due to the big wreck finished ahead of him.
Almirola ended up finishing 26th in points with his worst full season in Cup. As the bad runs piled up, Almirola seemed to back away from the limelight. Even Almirola’s social media output slowed to a trickle. Almirola appeared to stop tweeting in April and the only posts on his Twitter page since then are links to Facebook posts about his races. Those posts consisted solely of quotes that appear to be from press releases.
For 2017, not much will change as of right now for Almirola. He will be back in the No. 43 full-time with sponsorship from Smithfield Foods and the U.S. Air Force at bare minimum. Blickensderfer will remain as the crew chief. The hope is that Almirola can capitalize on some of the improved form late in the year, avoid those punitive DNF’s, and move back up the order.
Outside of the No. 43 team, questions abound. Shortly after finishing second at Talladega, Scott announced his retirement at the age of 28. The No. 44 team has very little sponsorship wrapped up for the 2017 season since Scott brought most of that team’s sponsors with him (Albertson’s, Shore Lodge, etc.). Admittedly, Scott had a terrible season (for the most part), but just having a second team around to bounce things off of is rather important. If either outside backing or a funded driver cannot be found, Richard Petty Motorsports could end up running the 2017 season as a single-car team. If that ends up occurring, it is doubtful that the team could improve their form much.
Regardless, 2017 should be seen as a chance for redemption for the No. 43. However, the team does have quite a few challenges to overcome in order to rise back to prominence.