After what doctors told Aric Almirola in May, the situation could not have healed better.
Following a hard crash that caused a fractured vertebra in his back at Kansas Speedway, Almirola was told he would be out of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing for eight weeks at best.
Wouldn’t you know, the Florida native walked into the Cup garage Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a firesuit on.
“It felt really good to come back,” Almirola said. “It felt really nice to be able to walk through the garage, see all my peers, all the guys. And to have so many people walk by and they’re like, ‘Hey! Welcome back.’ It really makes me feel good.”
Missing his first Cup Series race since 2011, Almirola was given a different, character-building opportunity in the last two months. For him, he feels luckier than ever to already be back after weeks of physical therapy.
“The doctors, from the very beginning of this injury, said eight to 12 weeks [to heal and return to racing] at best,” he said. “You’re more probable to look up to 16 weeks. So, I was concerned about the later return. I was diligent with my rehab and therapy. To come back right at eight weeks, of all the tracks on the schedule, this is the one with the least amount of loading and speeds.”
Though the flat one-mile track may be a nice place to start, Almirola feels a certain level of concern come the return of 1.5-mile and high-banked tracks.
“I think Charlotte, Texas, Dover, those places, will probably be a lot worse,” he said. “But I feel great. We were at Charlotte [testing on Tuesday] for four hours, and I felt great inside the car. I don’t foresee any issues, I might have some soreness and spottiness after the race, but that is expected as far as my doctors are concerned.”
In his absence, Regan Smith, Billy Johnson and Darrell Wallace Jr. took over the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. With Wallace running the most races at four, and earning a best finish of 11th last week at Kentucky, Almirola was more than pleased at the overall progression of the organization.
“It’s a tough thing for anyone to get thrown into a seat that’s not their racecar, they’re just trying to pitch in as a relief driver,” he said. “I was very grateful for the guys who stepped in. For them to come in and give their effort. For the last six years, they’ve had one guy giving feedback. So, to have a few others, that was really nice.”