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.
“When we went down in turn one, he (Byron) lost it under me and wiped us out. I’m pretty frustrated. You work all weekend, all week getting ready for the event, and to make it one lap is kind of uncalled for."@Aric_Almirola, 37th at @BMSupdates: https://t.co/tSBhRNFVm6#SHAZAM pic.twitter.com/k7aJh7k4Vs
— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) April 7, 2019
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.
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) September 13, 2019
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.
I'm disappointed with how things turned out. It's hard not to be. But I'm proud of this #SmithfieldRacing team no matter what. We'll continue to race hard, work hard and build for next year. pic.twitter.com/fXtxlocHRJ
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) September 30, 2019
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.
We had a really fast @SmithfieldBrand Ford Mustang all weekend and we were able to execute for the entire race. We had great pit stops, led laps, won a stage and finished second. We can build on that. 💪#SmithfieldRacing pic.twitter.com/uojP8VySGl
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) November 4, 2019
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.
#TBT to the day we made the announcement that I would drive the No. 10 @SmithfieldBrand Ford for @StewartHaasRcng. Today, we announced that the relationship will continue. I'm proud to be with this race team, supported by such an amazing partner in @SmithfieldFoods. Life is good. pic.twitter.com/54IVZ0vfAH
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) October 10, 2019
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.
I’d like to know… RETWEET if you’ve watch a #BeyondThe10 episode on YouTube. Talladega episode is dropping at 1 pm ET. We almost brought home the 🥓 for you guys 🔥
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) October 23, 2019
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.
Great weekend at Phoenix with @EckrichMeats on board. Tested my throwing arm by teaming up with a fan for a football toss for charity. We were able to raise $12,500 for @VictoryJunction! 🏈 We'll take it! 💪 pic.twitter.com/AToqkdpVwD
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) November 11, 2019
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) October 24, 2019
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.
— Jason Belmonte (@JBelmo) September 19, 2019
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.
36 starts, no wins, three top fives, 12 top 10s, one pole
Best Finish: Second (Texas – November)
Point Standings: 14th
Season Grade: C+