Aric Almirola is the poster child for the importance of good equipment. For all those people out there who wonder how a driver would do if he had cars equal to the top drivers, here’s your answer: If the driver is talented, the results will follow.
Almirola joined the Stewart-Haas Racing stable last year after running for underfunded Richard Petty Motorsports. He had one win, at Daytona, with RPM in 2014 but had never finished higher than 16th in points in his 10-year Cup career. That all changed last season. Almirola made the playoffs, won the fall race at Talladega and posted career bests in top 5s (four), top 10s (17) and average finish (12.8) while finishing fifth in the driver standings. He led more laps last year (181) than in the rest of his career combined (176).
SHR Fords won 12 races last year, a full third of the schedule. Joey Logano brought home a title, and Ford drivers gave the carmaker its first manufacturer’s championship since 2002. With that level of support, Almirola is certainly set up for a successful 2019 season.
The No. 10 team had struggled prior to last season, but by June last year, Almirola had as many top-10 finishes as Danica Patrick had in the previous five seasons combined. Along with rookie crew chief John Klausmeier, Almirola elevated the team beyond most people’s expectations for their first year together. The No. 10 was running at the end of 34 of 36 races, and that’s an excellent foundation to build on this year.
Sponsor Smithfield had enough faith in Almirola to follow him to SHR, and Mobil 1 also appeared on the car last year. This year, Valley Technical Academy joins the fold for a pair of races.
Almirola still has some kinks to hammer out before he’s a title threat, though. His four top 5s were easily the fewest among the top 10 drivers in points. Only three playoff drivers had fewer. Almirola ran well in the playoffs but struggled with consistency at other times throughout the season. Some of that can be attributed to both his and the team’s learning curve — even with speed and talent, they needed time to put it all together on a regular basis. They showed steady improvement through the year, a good indication that they are capable of more.
What will make it difficult for Almirola and Co. is that several others are capable as well. A lot will come down to how fast teams and drivers adapt to a very different rules package, but there are a lot of good teams gunning for top 10s. As good as 2018 was for Almirola, he’ll need to adapt quickly in 2019 if he’s going to keep up with the top teams in the garage.
What he has in his corner is experience. Klausmeier also returns with a year under his belt, and that gives the team every reason to believe it can get better each time out. Despite his veteran status, Almirola hasn’t been in the caliber of cars he’s in now, so whether he’s hit the peak of his talent or will get better with more time with SHR is still a question.
If the No. 10 team can duplicate its numbers from last year, it will be solid and likely make the playoffs again, but Almirola will need to improve the average finish a touch to hold off the field. It will be hard to duplicate last year’s points finish without posting better numbers.
Almirola proved himself to be a capable driver last year. The challenge now is to prove himself a serious contender.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 25/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)