Almirola riding a wave into NASCAR's playoffs

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Almirola riding a wave into NASCAR's playoffs

NASCAR

Almirola riding a wave into NASCAR's playoffs

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Aric Almirola heads into the playoffs fresh off signing a contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing, and with more confidence than ever.

There were a few things that made Almirola want to keep holding the steering wheel. His relationship with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz was one. Another was how the No. 10 Ford Mustang team has performed, such as making a third consecutive trip to the postseason.

Of course, Almirola continues to have the support of long-time sponsor Smithfield. The company also extended its deal with the team, and Almirola noted Wednesday afternoon they’ve “certainly appreciated” being on the television broadcasts with more regularity as he runs up front and leads laps.

Being a consistent contender is another reason that Almirola is sticking around. Joining Stewart-Haas three years ago has extended his Cup Series career.

“This is a performance-driven business,” said Almirola. “You can occasionally get opportunities for various reasons, but at the end of the day, you have to perform, and if you don’t, your days or years will be numbered. So yeah, me joining Stewart-Haas Racing and performing at the level I have over the last three years, being a consistent playoff contender, and my first year, 2018, going really deep in the playoff rounds and ultimately finishing fifth in the points, was reinvigorating for me and my career. Absolutely.

“I had gone six seasons before that and never really seen that type of success, and there’s only so long you can stay in the sport and be average. That’s just being truthful. I was grateful for that opportunity in 2018. I took that opportunity knowing I was going to do one of two things – I was either going to perform at a high level like Stewart-Haas Racing is capable and I was going to rise to that occasion, or I was going to be average and my days were going to be numbered, and I was probably going to be out of the sport.

“But at that point, I would be able to sleep at night knowing that I got a great opportunity and I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, or I got a great opportunity and I performed at a pretty high level. So far, I’ve been able to have some success. I still want more. I still have a burning desire to win more races, lead more laps, and ultimately win a championship. But so far we’ve been successful.”

Almirola might be the 12th seed in the playoffs due to the lack of a win, but he ended the regular season with the fifth-best average finish. It has been one of the most consistent seasons Almirola has put together, including a streak of nine consecutive top-10 finishes and five straight top-fives. Before this year, Almirola had never earned back-to-back top-five finishes.

The furthest he has gone into the playoffs is the third round, which, as Almirola mentioned, came in ’18. One of the reasons he is looking forward to this year’s edition is because he feels his team is performing at a higher level than it was two years ago. It has the potential to be a dark horse for the championship, and just maybe, Almirola said, he’s had to be patient for the wins to come in the season’s final 10 weeks.

“I’m excited about the playoffs,” he said. “We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”

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