Despite coming into the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs win-less, Aric Almirola described in Thursday’s NASCAR playoffs media day that he is very confident heading into what he feels like is his best shot at a championship in his career.
“Absolutely,”Almiorla said. “In 2018 I had a lot of confidence and it was kind of nice because there was very low expectations for us. We were a new team. It was my first year at Stewart-Haas Racing and nobody really paid any attention to us at all, and so having that confidence and low expectations we performed really well and through the summer leading up to those playoffs that year I saw the potential that we had.
“We went really far in the playoffs and almost made it to Homestead, came up just a little bit short, but we finished fifth in the points, which was an incredible year for me professionally and personally. And then going through this year I feel like we are performing at a higher level than 2018 when I had that much confidence going into the playoffs, so I am looking forward to the playoffs. I feel like we have the potential. We’ve been all around it, we just haven’t put it all together to win races, but we’ve been so close. We’ve led a lot of laps. We’ve run top five a lot and when you do those things, typically you’ll find yourself in victory lane, so maybe the Good Lord is just making me be patient and wait for the playoffs to come.”
With 10 races remaining in the 2020 season, a peak at Almirola’s season stats shows why he has so much reason for confidence. The 36-year old has already achieved career-bests in several statistical categories this season. His five top-five finishes (five), are an all-time best, his 287 laps led are more than 100 more laps than his previous total of most laps led in a season, and his average finish of 12.7 — if it stays there or better the rest of the way — would equal a career-best as well.
You expect during a pandemic, where teams have not had qualifying or practice, that there would be wildly inconsistent finishes for teams. That has not been the case for Almirola, who scored nine-consecutive top-10 finishes between Homestead in June and New Hampshire in August.
The Florida-native credits his incredible team at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“What all the men and women at Stewart-Haas Racing have been doing to rise to the occasion through these challenging times with the pandemic and things not being normal, showing up to the racetrack with cars that have never hit the racetrack and their first lap on the racetrack is gonna be the green flag for the race, I think that’s a true testament to the organization,” Almirola said.
“It’s not about just the individual team that has fine-tuned the race car throughout multiple practices to get ready for the race, it’s really about the organization, the preparation that goes into building the race car and making sure that no stone is unturned, and that every detail is paid attention to so that when those race cars get to the racetrack and line up for the race, that they’re not only fast, but that they stay together — that stuff is not falling off of them, you’re not having part failures and things like that. I’m really proud of our organization and I think Stewart-Haas Racing has a lot of confidence going into the playoffs.”
Another impressive thing for Almirola is that he’s had this great of a season with a brand-new crew chief in Mike Bugarewicz, who was swapped to the No. 10 team, while Johnny Klausmeier was sent to the No. 14 SHR team in the offseason.
The two have gelled well in 2020.
While it’s been an impressive season for Almirola and the No. 10 team, which has led to a contract extension for Almirola for the 2021 season, can he be a true championship contender in this 10-race Playoff?
According to a decent chunk of his competitors, who are vying for the championship, Almirola is the circled choice as an underdog in the Playoffs who could shock the world and take home the championship.
“I’m good if they [think I’m a sleeper],” Almirola said. “It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks and that’s an attitude that I’ve had for a long time. I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with Bugarewicz and the guys on my team. What anybody else thinks I really don’t care because only I and my race team really know what we’re capable of and areas where we need to improve and areas where we feel like we’re doing a good job. I am excited about the playoffs. I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”
If Almirola can continue the consistency that he showed in the second half of the regular season, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think he and the No. 10 team can form a long-sustained run in the Playoffs.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.