They say one race does not a season make, but for Aric Almirola, one race in 2021 certainly saved his year. Almirola struggled for the first half of the season, scoring just two top 10s through the first 21 races. The Playoffs looked out of reach for the veteran driver.
But then came the summer race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Early rain caused mayhem at the start, but Almirola avoided it and got stronger throughout the race. While darkness ended the event early, this was no gimme win for Almirola, who had a strong car and led 25 laps.
Almirola should have been stronger in other races last year, but the same can be said for all of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates. Almirola was the lone winner for the organization a year after they posted 10 victories in the Cup Series. So, while Almirola certainly had his problems, at least some of his frustration can be blamed on the organization as a whole.
SHR has a ton to gain from the new racecar this year because it puts them back on equal ground to start. As an organization, the hard part will be staying there, but Almirola will play a role in that. He’s a veteran, and while he’s never set the world on fire, he’s always been strong on flat tracks, and that consistency brings information that the team can count on.
Crew chief Mike Bugarewicz is also a veteran and has worked with Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer before Almirola, and Almirola’s even-keeled approach gives his team the opportunity to focus on finding speed and keeping the driver informed of strategy and track conditions. They work well together, and the duo tends to make safe, solid calls as a result.
Almirola’s luck in 2021 was terrible — he crashed out of five of the first 13 races, and while he finished every race after that, luck wasn’t always on his side. Running midpack can often leave a driver on the wrong side of Lady Luck, because there’s no clean air and it can mean running with drivers who aren’t careful or talented enough to avoid problems.
Despite a rough season in 2021, Almirola still has the confidence of backer Smithfield, and of SHR. A Playoff spot may be out of reach if the No. 10 team can’t win its way in; there’s plenty of room for improvement on the consistency front. That’s where they need to focus their efforts, and Almirola has the ability to get top finishes if the equipment is there.
SHR’s season is going to come down to the organization itself even more than its individual teams and drivers. If they click with the new car across the board, Almirola can be more than a 20th-place driver — he’s proven that.
But the turnaround has to come from above as well as within the No. 10 team. Three of four SHR cars struggled in 2021, to the point that the organization scored the fewest wins in its 12-year history. A shift to young talent (Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe) may have produced two Rookie of the Year Awards, but both drivers failed to score a top-5 finish in 2021.
Righting that ship will be more important overall than individual results. Almirola can help with that via his veteran knowledge, and nobody stands to benefit more if he does.