Aric Almirola entered the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs as an underdog. Being one of five drivers that made the post-season based on points, expectations of making a deep title run were low.
However, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver quickly proved those predictions wrong and put up a strong nine-race performance that nearly earned him a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
As his three challengers under the cutoff line crashed out of Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway, the No. 10 team found themselves at the front with a shot at victory.
Despite not having the fastest car, late restarts played into Almirola’s favor. However, he was unable to capitalize as Kyle Busch’s strength showed as he pulled away to his eighth win of 2018.
Almirola placed fourth, marking his second-best finish of the playoffs. However, only first-place mattered for his team at Phoenix.
“We took a seventh or eighth-place car and the next thing you know we were in position to win the race,” Almirola said. “It was a good day for us, but today we needed to win and we didn’t win.”
While it’s a discouraging conclusion to an impressive championship run, many never expected the No. 10 team to be in this position. Beginning the season with a new driver and ending it just short of a title race berth tells the story of a remarkable breakout year.
“This is our first year working together,” Almirola said. “You look at all the teams we’re racing and they’ve got four, five, six, seven years working together, so what we’ve accomplished in one year is a hell of a lot…”
Outrunning some of the most experienced competitors in the garage this fall attests to SHR’s strength and Almirola’s growth. In his one previous post-season appearance with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014, he was eliminated after the first round.
With one event remaining in 2018, Almirola has already posted career numbers across the table, including scoring nine more top-10 finishes than his previous high of seven in 2014.
This success sets the bar higher for the No. 10 team moving forward. With a full year under their belts and returning to tracks where they contested closely for wins, Almirola could emerge as a consistent front-runner in the coming seasons.
Phoenix may leave Almirola wrestling with what-if scenarios heading into the championship race, but off-season reflection and further improvement could fuel another breakout year in 2019.
“It’s been a long grind and I’m tired and I’m ready for the offseason, but I really wanted to go to Homestead with a chance to run for a championship and oh so close.”
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