Aric Almirola has spoken at length this season about feeling like a rookie again in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing.
Now embedded in a team that he believes is capable of winning races, he has expressed recent disappointment with top 10 and top-five finishes. But having a team that can win is one thing. What about Almirola himself?
You can argue that Almirola has adjusted to competing for a championship organization. Competing and winning, however, are two entirely different things in NASCAR.
From 2012 to 2017, Almirola raced on a full-time basis, but he was neither a winner nor considered a driver who could suddenly turn into one; a lucky day in the rain at the 2014 July Daytona race notwithstanding. Expectations and team capabilities in Richard Petty Motorsports’ usual midpack hunting ground were very different to his situation now.
So over the weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was time to forget the questions about about his season, or when he’ll win, or how disappointed he is that it hasn’t happened yet, and ask a new one pointed at Almirola himself: after years of languishing back in the field and now being amidst the best in the business at the front, is Almirola learning how to win in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series?
“I kind of approached this year trying to erase everything from my memory bank and start with a clean slate and a fresh sheet of paper,” he said.
“A lot of it with the poking and prodding of Johnny [Klausmeier], my crew chief, just like, ‘hey, let’s start clean, learn together and grow together and build our foundation together.’ And yes, I have had to re-learn different techniques and different things that I’m doing in the car. I have learned how to race completely different. It really is a different atmosphere when you’re running inside the top 10 and top five [with] the way you race, and the way you go about your strategy and things like that.
“For the last six years, you would race tooth and nail for the lucky dog every weekend. Your strategy revolves around taking wave-arounds and trying to figure out how to get back on the lead lap at the end of the race, and how to be creative with the strategy to put yourself in position on the lead lap. It’s completely different.”
In his six previous full seasons combined – 209 races – Almirola earned 30 top-10 finishes, 10 top-fives, and led 118 laps. He was on the periphery; a solid 15th to 25th-place driver, with scattered top 10s thrown in on good days.
In just 21 races with SHR, Almirola has already eclipsed his single-season record for top-10 finishes with nine (it was seven in 2014), and has already led more laps in one year than his previous six, with a tally of 113 going into August.
Again: Almirola is competing, but he has not yet broken through. He has not been able to get the best of teammate Kevin Harvick, or Kyle Busch and others. Almirola and company have also cost themselves good results on days when they could have been contenders. It has been a process, and one that Almirola says he appreciates experiencing.
“It really is an art,” Almirola said of being able to win. “You look at Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch and Martin Truex and all those guys – Jimmie Johnson – you look at those guys that have run up front and win on a consistent basis, and there really is an art to winning.
“They know what they need, when to push, when not to push. They know when to be aggressive, and when to make the aggressive pit call or follow suit with everybody else’s strategy. There’s a lot that plays into it other than having a fast race car.”
While he’s had fast cars all year, Almirola pointed specifically to the No. 10 team’s speed in the six to eight weeks leading into Pocono, a timeframe where all but one of Almirola’s 113 laps led were racked up.
“We’ve shown up with race cars that have been really fast and competitive and capable of winning,” said Almirola. “But now we are starting to really hone in on all the other parts of what it takes to go win.”
That would be on the racetrack, in the notebook – and also within Almirola.