Is Aric Almirola standing at a crossroads in 2020? Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but there is a bit of truth in it as well. This could be a make-or-break year for the 35-year-old Florida native.
After a career year in 2018 — which saw Almirola score career highs in top 5s (four) and top 10s (17) as well as a fifth-place points finish and a win at Talladega in the fall — the 2019 season was a bit of a struggle. Almirola didn’t win a race, and he took just three top 5s and 12 top 10s en route to a 14th-place result in the final standings.
Almirola wasn’t alone, though. A year after all four Stewart-Haas Racing teammates visited Victory Lane, only Kevin Harvick made a return trip in 2019. Only Harvick progressed beyond the Round of 12 in the playoffs as well. The team simply didn’t have the same speed as the year prior. It’s hard to point a finger at any one driver, and looking at the big picture, the Ford camp wasn’t quite the threat it was in 2018.
The Ford teams had the new Mustang to work with in 2019, and while they had plenty of success — particularly early in the year when all of the teams were still figuring out a new aerodynamic package — they were just a tick off as a group from the year before. And with a completely new racecar coming in 2021, it’s unlikely there will be many changes this year.
That could be a good thing for Almirola. The team has a year’s worth of notes it can use to improve the cars this time around. Almirola is still a solid, consistent driver, and if he can improve his average, the other numbers will fall into line.
He has sponsor stability on his side as well. The No. 10 team will have backing from Smithfield for the majority of the season while Mobil 1 and others fill the gaps.
There will be one change for Almirola — after both the Nos. 10 and 14 missed the winner’s circle, SHR made some crew chief moves, and Almirola will work with Mike Bugarewicz, who was with Clint Bowyer for the last three years. Bugarewicz has been with SHR his entire career as a head wrench and knows the system well. He guided Bowyer to two wins in 2018.
Almirola does face a little pressure in 2020 as it’s a contract year, and he’ll be 36 when it ends. With youngster Chase Briscoe waiting in the wings, SHR will be watching Almirola closely. His status in the future no doubt rides on sponsorship — should Smithfield lobby to keep him in the No. 10, that will carry a lot of weight.
Almirola is a sponsor-friendly driver: He gets airtime when he runs well, and he’s familiar to fans, many of whom remember him being removed from a winning Joe Gibbs Racing car — at the sponsor’s insistence — in favor of Denny Hamlin in a 2007 Xfinity Series race despite leading the event. Almirola was credited with the win, but it was Hamlin behind the wheel. That didn’t sit well with fans, who have long memories.
The field of playoff contenders is deep entering the season. Almirola will be in the mix, but he’s got a lot of competition for a top spot. He’s an outstanding superspeedway racer, and he could stamp his ticket early at Daytona or Talladega. And with Daytona also the final cutoff before the playoffs, Almirola will be in the mix. He has to make this year count.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 75/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)