Aric Almirola is off to the strongest start of his career, as he sits 10th in points and is currently in position for the Playoffs.
After leaving Richard Petty Motorsports last year, it was announced in November of 2017 that Aric Almirola would replace Danica Patrick in the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Fusion driving for Stewart-Haas Racing. After the opening 10 races of the season, Almirola finds himself in the top 10 in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup driver points standings and is currently in position to qualify for the Playoffs. In perspective, the No. 10 team’s previous best result in points was 24th in both 2014 and 2015. This year, they have two top-10 finishes and were one turn away from winning the iconic season opener Daytona 500. The team has finished no worse than 13th, which came at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Almirola placed a third fastest time during a final run at the end of the first practice at Auto Club Speedway and securing a 1-2-3 result for Stewart-Haas Racing alongside teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, respectively. Regardless of the recent rains, all the Cup teams are experiencing high speeds and fast times.
“It’s crazy how gripped up these cars are and how fast we’re going at this race track,” he said when I asked him about the grip from the recent rains and no other series racing here lately. “Usually, you think about coming to Auto Club Speedway and you think about slipping and sliding around, but here in qualifying trim it is insane how fast we’re going.”
One concern about Almirola visiting the 2-mile oval was the familiar yet rough and bouncy backstretch. Last year, Almirola was involved in a fiery crash with Joey Logano and Danica Patrick. Entering Turn 1, Logano had a brake rotor snap in half, which pulled his car into Patrick’s and the two crashed into the outside wall. With oil on the track behind them, Almirola could not turn in time to avoid the collision. His impact into Logano’s car was heavy enough to pick the rear wheels up off the ground. Medical personnel had to lift Almirola through the roof after cutting it open and took him to a local hospital. After evaluations, Aric had broken his back, and the violent wreck caused the driver to miss roughly eight weeks of Monster Energy Cup Series competition.
Despite the history of his back injury, Aric was relieved the surface caused no issues with his back and that he’s never felt better.
“Surprisingly well,” Alrimola said with a hint of relief. “The very first test that I did on the seven-post shaker rig after I broke my back to make sure that my back felt OK enough to get back in the race car was we ran the track mapped file from Auto Club Speedway because it’s the roughest race track that we go to. So six weeks after I broke my back, I went to Ford’s seven-post shaker rig and sat in my race car on that shaker rig with the car running a mock lap around this race track and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Holy cow, is it really that rough?’ And then we showed up back here and the answer is yes, it really is that rough. But my back feels great.
“Thank you for asking. I feel like I am better than 100 percent. I feel like I’m more physically fit and in better shape than I was pre-accident just because after my accident, I had to be really diligent with my rehab and my physical therapy just to be able to hurry up the process to be able to get back in the car, so I feel like right now I’m probably in the best shape of my life.”
Despite the successful practice session this morning, Almirola has yet to finish in the top-10 at Fontana. His previous best finish was 11th three years ago but has only finished in the top-20 two other times (14th and 19th). However, this isn’t stumbling his confidence level at all.
“Every race car driver at this level has been really good at everything they did before they got here or else they wouldn’t have gotten here,” Almirola stated. “It is gonna take a while to build my confidence back up and get to where I need to be to. I’ve historically not run well at Vegas. I’ve historically not run well at Atlanta. Phoenix has been an OK track for me, but to go to those race tracks and produce the results that we have had me really excited about the race tracks coming down the pipe that I feel like are race tracks that I’ve excelled at even with the slightly underfunded team and not the best race cars.
“I’ve still been able to run well and produce results at those race tracks, so I’m excited to see what we can accomplish when we get to those kinds of race tracks.”
The No. 10 Stewart-Hass Racing team missed qualifying, despite finishing third in first practice on Friday, and will start 27th for Sunday’s race. The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series waves the green flag for the Auto Club 400 on Sunday, March 18 at 12:30 p.m. local time.