Aric Almirola found plenty to be satisfied with after 325 miles at Pocono Raceway, although losing the race in the final round of pit stops was still a tough pill to swallow.
Almirola and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz were successful in their mission, aiming to score a good batch of points Saturday afternoon. The No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang led the most laps, 61, and scored 19 points between the two stages.
However, in sticking to that points-gathering strategy, Almirola finished third behind Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Both those drivers took two tires on their final pit stop inside 40 laps to go, while Almirola received four. Harvick passed Almirola, who had been leading, on pit road, and left him far behind.
“I thought we were in a really good spot, to be honest,” said Almirola. “I knew we needed more fuel than everybody else because we stayed out to score stage points and run long on our tank of fuel. We might as well have taken four tires. We couldn’t have taken two tires and got enough fuel in it. That was the right call.
“To be honest, if a caution comes out with 10 laps to go or at any point once it all cycles out, we’re running third. I feel like we’re in the best position to win that race. We have four fresh tires and arguably the best car. I felt like that was a great call by Buga. It certainly gave us an opportunity to win.”
Pocono gave Almirola his third straight top-five finish and 61 was the most laps he’s led in a single race this season. Asked if his team has done anything differently the last few weeks, or just hit things right (at Homestead, Talladega, and Pocono), Almirola chuckled — it was all of the above.
“Buga and I have talked about some of the cars we had at Darlington and Charlotte; we were bouncing around between different car builds, different setups, trying different things just because the gap that we had,” he said. “We only ran a few races to start the year; then we sat around for two months. We didn’t really build that great of a notebook. When the season started back up, we were still guessing a lot, if that’s the right way to put it. We were trying things.
“Darlington, we had a couple of good races. Then Charlotte, we were average at best. The second race was not very good at all. I feel like we just learned from those races. Buga went to work on the cars, and we’re coming to the racetracks with different setups, (some) different things. It’s seemed to work. Right now, the momentum seems to be going our way, whereas four or five races prior to Miami, everything that could go wrong seemed like it did.”
Three Stewart-Haas cars finished inside the top 10 as Clint Bowyer was seventh behind Harvick and Almirola. Even though Almirola isn’t sure the gap between Harvick and the rest of his teammates is closing consistently, as the No. 4 has always seemed to be the strongest one of the bunch, Almirola felt he was on par with Harvick at Pocono.
“Him and Rodney [Childers] and that whole team do an incredible job of consistently running at that level,” said Almirola. “We were able to do it today, so that was good. I’ll mark that up as a success. It was nice to be able to compete with him there, to lead with him behind me, and he got loose because he was on a little bit better tires; I was able to hold him off and actually start to drive off from him a little bit. That certainly felt good.
“Any time you can keep Kevin Harvick behind you and actually start to drive away a little bit, it feels pretty good. But we’ve got to continue to build off of this. We’ve got to do it consistently. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”