The first four months to the 2018 season have been dream-like for Stewart-Haas Racing. But no one may be riding that high more than newcomer Aric Almirola.
Almirola, 34, is coming off six seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports where he picked up his lone victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Daytona in 2014. 15 races into 2018, he’s happy with the progression that he and rookie crew chief Johnny Klausmeier are showing.
Through the opening 15 races, Almirola has six top-10 finishes and was leading on the last lap of the Daytona 500 before Austin Dillon turned the No. 10 machine in turn 3. Even then, he was still able to finish 11th.
“We’re off to a really good start,” Almirola told Frontstretch. “In the grand scheme of things, we’re all really young and brand new. I really think that we’re jelling. We’re starting to come together as a team and as a unit, and that takes time.
“I think people underestimate that. It’s like dating.”
Since Daytona, Almirola has a best effort of sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway. However, his average finish of 12th is nearly six positions higher than his previous career best, which came in 2015.
The No. 10 car has also seen a big increase in performance this year over the previous five seasons. Danica Patrick, who competed in this ride from 2013-2017, had just seven top 10s in 190 races, while Almirola is just one shy of tying a career high (seven).
It’s clear the driver’s made a difference here; this team is on the upswing. At the same time, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates have combined to rack up seven victories. Kevin Harvick has a handful of wins, while Clint Bowyer has added a pair. Though Kurt Busch hasn’t crossed the finish line first, he does have a trio of top-five results.
That fuels the Floridian to be better.
“I think everyone on this [No.] 10 team is really hungry,” he said. “We want to perform at the level we know we’re capable of. We want to go out there and produce the results Stewart-Haas Racing has shown they can do on a weekly basis.
“I think that helps us dig deep every single weekend. We want to go out and prove that we can be successful.”
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) June 16, 2018
Perhaps the lone criticism for Almirola this season is keeping up with the racetrack. Several times, the No. 10 car has launched towards the front early in the race only to miss an adjustment. They certainly battle back, though, a positive sign in their first year together. In 15 races, the No. 10 car sits second in both quality passes on track (793) and green flag passes (1,378).
What’s missing to make them a weekly contender closer to the front?
“I think everyone underestimates how challenging and competitive this sport is,” he said. “What happens is one or two or three guys get on a roll and people just say ‘oh well, those guys are going to win’ or whatever. It is so hard.”
At least spending over 70 percent of laps inside the top 15 also allows Almirola to rack up top-10 finishes. But the goal is winning, and this veteran driver believes it could happen at any moment.
“When you put yourself in the top 10 regularly, especially when you can start cracking into the top five on a regular basis, that sets you up to win races,” he explained. “You have to run in the top five, top 10 to put yourself in a position to learn how to race with those guys up there because it is different. Strategy is different, the way the race plays out there is different. The way you race up there is different.
“I think as we continue to run in the top 10 and become more familiar with running up there and contending to run in the top 10 and challenging to run in the top five.
“Our day is going to come.”
Almirola’s teammates this season have combined to lead 1,529 laps (Harvick 958, Bowyer 308, Busch 263), while the No. 10 car has been out front for just one circuit. But he would consider his first season at SHR a success.
In six prior full-time seasons in the Cup Series, Almirola has made the playoffs just once (2014). His previous high in the point standings through the first 15 races was in 2015 when he was 14th.
Currently, Almirola sits 11th in the standings, 12th on the playoff grid. He’s 106 points above fellow Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is the first driver outside the playoff bubble. Moving forward, the summer months will be about clinching that berth. The comfortable lead means they can even get aggressive chasing after victories.
“I think our approach hasn’t really changed,” Almirola said. “Johnny [Klausmeier] and I sat down at the beginning of the year and we felt like if we ran top 15 every single week we would make the playoffs. I think our approach needs to stay the same. We can’t change from what got us to where we’re at right now to being 11th in points with an advantage over the cutoff line.”
The series heads to Sonoma Raceway this weekend (June 24), where Almirola has a best finish of 14th in 2015. Expect him to best that with the No. 10 this weekend.