There’s always speculation about drivers with smaller teams: What would they be capable of if they had equipment equal to the top drivers? Aric Almirola is about to find out.
The Cup Series veteran, a former Joe Gibbs Racing development driver, has raced his full-time Cup career for Richard Petty Motorsports, a small to mid-tier organization. And he’s done well, with one win, 31 top-10 finishes and a 2014 playoff berth — not bad considering the lack of competitive equipment.
This year, Almirola steps into the No. 10 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing, replacing Danica Patrick. SHR had three wins and sent two drivers to the playoffs last year, including third-place finisher Kevin Harvick.
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Almirola is looking to bounce back from an up-and-down season. He scored 18 top-20 finishes, decent for an underfunded single-car team and more than some of the drivers who finished ahead of him in the standings. Almirola missed seven races in May, June and July following a broken vertebra suffered in a crash at Kansas Speedway in May. He was having a top-20 points season to that point, but the injury cost him time not only out of the car but also during his first several weeks back. Upon his return, he struggled to post results like he had before the injury. He did bounce back a bit during the final stretch, though, and his average finish of 18.8 put him on par with a couple of playoff drivers.
Almirola brings sponsor Smithfield with him to SHR, though the exact number of races has not been disclosed. That’s good for the team, which struggled with sponsorship problems last year, and it’s a confidence boost for Almirola as well.
This is going to be a rebuilding year for the No. 10 team, though. Patrick’s average finish was a full five positions below Almirola’s. She finished just one spot ahead of him in points but ran seven more races. Over the years, in the 183 races both drivers ran, Almirola finished ahead of Patrick 112 times. Almirola represents a step up for the team, but he’s not going to jump in and rival Harvick in his first few months. Finding out what Almirola needs in a car and adapting the car to his driving style will take time.
That takes some pressure off Almirola; he shouldn’t be expected to jump in and turn the team around. He has the luxury of time to adapt to better equipment and the information a multi-car team will provide him. His best points finish was 16th in 2014, but expecting him to duplicate that is a stretch for this year — considering his new team has not recorded a top-5 finish in the past five seasons.
The information sharing will be a huge benefit. Harvick and Kurt Busch are former champions and perpetual playoff contenders. And Clint Bowyer is a veteran who has been successful at many of the same tracks as Almirola. If they can learn from each other, it will only make them all better.
Both sides will be adjusting to a new crew chief as John Klausmeier takes over for Billy Scott. Will fresh blood lead to fresh opportunities for Almirola or simply delayed improvement?
Almirola has a lot to be excited about. Will he prove to be a contender with SHR? Perhaps not right away, but he could emerge as one to watch in the near future.