There's more competition than you think for top-15 finishes these days — that's a testament to how much talent there is and how many capable teams are racing in the NASCAR Cup Series heading into 2021. A top-15 average finish is usually a ticket to the playoffs, and some playoff drivers don't average that well and find their way in anyway.
So it's no surprise that Aric Almirola has been a perennial playoff contender since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018. His 13.3 average finish last year was the second-best season average of his career, and his 18 top 10s and 305 laps led were both career highs.
Almirola probably isn't going to reel off a five-win season at this point. He'll be 37 in March and has two career victories coming four years apart. But that doesn't mean he won't contend. He's an outstanding superspeedway driver. Both of his wins have come on NASCAR's biggest tracks, one at Daytona and one at Talladega. But he's not a one-trick pony when it comes to strong runs. He's had some good short-track races, and he's very solid on the flatter tracks, like Loudon and Phoenix, and on the concrete at Dover and Bristol. He'll lead some laps and get his sponsors airtime running near the front, and that's important.
Almirola and sponsor Smithfield have been together since Almirola entered the Cup Series full time with Richard Petty Motorsports, with the company putting enough faith in Almirola to make the jump to SHR. They're slated to be on the hood of the No. 10 for 25 races in 2021, though they could add more later if the results are there. The backing is plenty to keep Almirola in the car this year.
SHR can obviously put winning Fords on the track; Kevin Harvick won nine times last year, and Cole Custer won a race as well — 10 races are close to a third of the season. With Mike Bugarewicz calling the shots, Almirola is certainly going to put together another solid race season in 2021. Bugarewicz has five years as a Cup crew chief under his belt and has won with both Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer.
Almirola isn't entering the year free from pressure, though. While making the playoffs shouldn't be an issue for the No. 10 bunch, Almirola needs to show SHR that he deserves a contract extension beyond this season, and he'll need to have Smithfield on board for that. A win would go a long way toward that end, and everything suggests that this team is capable of that, particularly at a superspeedway.
In many ways, 2020 was Almirola's best Cup season to date, and there's no reason to suspect that he won't perform at a similar level this year. The playoff structure actually made Almirola's season look worse than it was; with no playoff resets, his points total was good enough for 11th overall, though his early elimination relegated him to 15th in the actual standings, as his results were inconsistent in the final seven events.
Consistency is generally on Almirola's side. He had just three finishes worse than 24th last year, one of which resulted from a mechanical issue and the others from crashes. If he can make top-15 finishes happen instead of 16th-20th or so, he'll make the playoffs. If he can turn a few more top 10s into top 5s, he can finish better than he did last year. All in all, that would be a successful year, in line with Almirola's career. Expecting a major breakout at this point would be a mistake, but expecting a solid, consistent season that puts his team in the postseason and gets his sponsors value for the investment is right on target.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 30/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)