(Photo: NKP)

2019 NASCAR Driver Reviews: Aric Almirola

2019 was supposed to be the year Aric Almirola shed his Cinderella label for a different identity: blue-chip contender.

One of 2018’s biggest surprises, Almirola took over a car piloted to years of mediocrity by Danica Patrick and left it on the doorstep of the Championship 4. A win at Talladega Superspeedway catapulted him into the Round of 8; a fourth-place finish at ISM Raceway placed him just short of the final cutoff. In the end, a fifth-place finish in the standings was a career best and led to high hopes for more.

Instead, the glass slipper simply broke during what became a frustrating year for Almirola. His No. 10 Ford never really caught fire, floundering amid a down year for the organization he drives for, Stewart-Haas Racing. SHR went from putting four cars in victory lane in 2018 to just one (Kevin Harvick) last season. The organization went the first half of the year without winning a race, playing second fiddle to rival Team Penske and struggling with the sport’s new handling package on intermediates. Almirola spent most of the summer simply clinging to a playoff spot, stumbling to what became a first-round postseason exit.

It’s a shocking fall considering Almirola began 2019 with six top-10 finishes in seven races. After Texas Motor Speedway in April, he was fifth in the standings and second best in the SHR stable behind Harvick. But bad luck at Bristol Motor Speedway the following week led to Almirola’s car getting trashed two laps into the race. It led to a rare burst of emotion for who’s typically NASCAR’s most mild-mannered driver.

It was an unintentional move by William Byron, but the incident had some long-lasting consequences. Almirola was 23rd at Richmond Raceway the next week, posted five runs outside the top 10 in six races and began to disappear from the weekly conversation up front. During a stretch from May 1 to Labor Day weekend in September, the No. 10 car was out front only twice: for a lap at Michigan International Speedway in June and 12 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July.

At least Almirola maintained his ability to race clean, keeping out of trouble from overdriving the car. But a flurry of 12th-, 14th- and 16th-place finishes is not what the doctor ordered to work your way into championship conversation. Then bad luck came at the worst possible time: back-to-back wrecks at Michigan and Bristol in August. Almirola needed a 17th-place, play-it-safe finish at Darlington Raceway in September simply to keep his playoff spot intact.

Despite the summer slide, hope reigned eternal that Almirola and crew chief Johnny Klausmeier got their act together in time. Harvick, who made the Championship 4, had won multiple races since July. Teammate Clint Bowyer earned a postseason bid by the skin of his teeth. SHR placed four cars in the Round of 8 last season and felt it had the experience to contend.

But Almirola learned the hard way that you can’t manufacture momentum when you never had it. Runs of 13th, 16th and 14th in the first round of the playoffs were about where he had run all year. In fact, his average finish for the season wound up at 15.4, a performance destined to miss the cut once the field shrunk from 16 to 12. Give Almirola credit; he put together a spirited effort at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. But it wound up short, a damaged racecar no match for a spirited run by teammate Bowyer and Alex Bowman up ahead of him.

So the rest of 2019 became a postmortem on how junk-y Almirola’s season actually turned out. There appeared to be a burst of momentum late – Texas  Motor Spedway produced a second-place finish to Harvick and a season-high 62 laps led.

Problem was, by that point, the damage was done. It just wasn’t enough for a significant jump in the year-end standings, as Almirola ended the year down nine spots in 14th. There were declines across the board, including top-10 finishes (17 to 12), lead-lap finishes (27 to 23) and average finish (12.8 to 15.4).

The inconsistent performance led to a few grumbles SHR might make changes for 2020. Cole Custer needed a place to race after a championship-level NASCAR Xfinity Series season, and someone had to get a pink slip to make room. In the end, teammate Daniel Suarez got the boot, while sponsorship from Smithfield kept Almirola safe. The company will back Almirola a ninth straight year as funding returns intact for 2020.

It’s a nice commitment from SHR, as it enters 2020 with three of its four drivers aged 35 or older: Almriola, Harvick and Bowyer. It’s the only team to do so, while others, like Hendrick Motorsports, employ three drivers under the age of 30.

Off-track, an often camera-shy Almirola worked hard to increase his Twitter and media presence. A series called Beyond the 10 was posted on YouTube and tracked his at-track and family life on race weekends. Episodes showcased behind-the-scenes footage of Almirola and tried to paint a story of the daily grind a racer, husband and father faces.

Almirola also spent time publicizing his interactions with racefans both on the track and off. Always known for being a religious, charitable man, his work with the Victory Junction Gang Camp and other humanitarian endeavors showcased his continued humility.

Perhaps the coolest moment occurred when Almirola helped knock pins down… on the racetrack. A special event pushed by sponsor GoBowling.com had him take professional bowler Jason Belmonte around Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval. Belmonte dropped his bowling ball from the racecar and set a record for the fastest strike in history.

It was one of the coolest NASCAR moments to happen in 2019, though it struggled to gain traction outside Almirola’s orbit. That’s what happens when a Cinderella story fails to translate into sustained success; sports make you an also-ran faster than you can blink.

It’s why 2020 could be make-or-break for Almirola’s Cup future. A 14th-place point finish is not where SHR expects to be with its racecars. With limited tweaks in the rules and on the team, there’s a belief Almirola can work his way out of this slump and climb back up the ladder.

If not? There are plenty of Ford prospects down the line who could jump into the seat. As we’ve seen in 2019, a future is not guaranteed for nearly anyone with these year-to-year deals. Another fast start, like Almirola had this season, is critical to harnessing that old momentum.

The question is whether he can actually keep it this time.

2019 Stats

36 starts, no wins, three top fives, 12 top 10s, one pole

Best Finish: Second (Texas – November)

Point Standings: 14th

Season Grade: C+

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The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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3 comments

  1. Avatar

    I used to cheer for Aric. Since 2018 no more. What a whiny, entitled(undeserved) complainer about every driver with seemingly zero introspect about himself. The dummy always talks smack getting out of his car, then the next week he spews the same bs!!!!!!! You would think a week to look at the replays would have him contrite, reflective, apologetic, etc! NOPE, the idiot doubles down!

    He has been very blessed because he brings $$$$$ not because of his skill. You would think he would be humble, but alas that is not the case.

    Hmmm, the shake up at SHR is gonna help him or old Clint. LOL.

  2. Avatar

    Almirola’s sponsor, SMITHFIELD, is owned by the Communist Party in CHINA.
    You talk about a traitor.