The hottest driver in the NASCAR Cup Series is not the one who scored his fifth win of the season on Thursday night. It also isn’t the driver who is leading the point standings. Nor is it the reigning series champion or any of the drivers who finished in the top five at Kansas Speedway.
Instead, the hottest driver is the one who lurked just outside the top five in the Super Start Batteries 400. Enter Aric Almirola and the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team.
The numbers don’t lie. Over the last eight weeks, covering Homestead through Kansas, Almirola is the only driver in the field who has been inside the top 10 at every checkered flag. The streak is a personal best for Almirola, who previously had a best five straight top-10 finishes in the spring of 2019. The streak also includes five straight top-five finishes whereas Almirola had never before earned consecutive top-five finishes coming into this season.
Almirola has done all but one thing in the last eight weeks — win.
“I am pretty eager to get a W,” said Almirola on Thursday night. “This race team has been doing a great job. We’ve been running good. A long time ago, I would have given anything to just run top 10 every week and run like we have been running, but when you start tasting victory and run up front and race around those guys, you want to seal the deal and go to victory lane.
“(Thursday), we were just a little bit off. We didn’t have as good of a car compared to the field as we have the last several weeks.”
But even when Almirola felt “off,” he was still solid. The No. 10 had an average running position of eighth at Kansas and was inside the top 10 in both stages to bring his stage point total to 99 on the year.
Almirola’s numbers from the last eight races, which also include 228 laps led, has catapulted him from 13th to eighth in points. On the playoff grid, Almirola has a 134-point buffer on the cutline.
“I’m proud of my guys,” Almirola continued. “We keep chipping away and building up that points buffer to the cutoff, which is nice, but now we’re ready to go get the W and some bonus points for the playoffs. I’m proud of everybody — Smithfield, Ford, Mobil 1, and everyone that supports this program, everybody back at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“Finally, we’ll get to catch our breath for three or four days here and then head off to Loudon.”
With 17 races left this year, Almirola has already set a personal single-season high in top-five finishes (five) and laps led (253). With his next top-10 finish, Almirola will tie his single-season high in that category, which he set last year. The highest Almirola has finished in the standings is fifth, which came in 2018 when he made it to the third round of the playoffs.