NASCAR Cup Series

Aric Almirola hoping for one last late-season playoff push

July 14

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

Aric Almirola turned his frustrating 2021 season around with a victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

He will look to do the same in 2022, though this year has been much less frustrating as far as where he has finished.

But the 38-year-old, who said at the start of the year that this would be his last full-time season, will readily admit that while his 14.7 average finish ranks five spots better than last year's, making the playoffs means more than average finish.

Aric Almirola speaks on his improvement in 2022

Aric Almirola says he is having a good season but needs to make the playoffs for this season to rank as better than 2021.

"Making the playoffs is the goal," Almirola said. "You can't run for a championship if you don't make the playoffs.

"We start every year before we leave to go to Daytona with a list of goals, and priority No. 1 is to do everything you can in the regular season to put yourself in position to make the playoffs, whether that's on points or by winning races."

To make the playoffs, Almirola likely will have to win a race, as 13 drivers have already won this year, meaning that at most, three drivers will get into the 16-driver playoff field on points.

Twelfth in the points standings, Almirola sits 42 points behind the current playoff cutoff (Christopher Bell), and if a winless driver from outside the cutoff gets a win, he's currently 85 points behind the next driver (Martin Truex Jr.).

"We've done a good job throughout the year of scoring points and putting ourselves in a position that typically would have had us racing our way in by points," said Almirola, who has three career Cup wins. "But this is a very un-typical year, and with this new car, we've had a lot of different winners.

"It's put us in a position to where the guy eighth in points [Bell] is on the bubble, which is unheard of. ... You've got to win to be safe to feel like you're going to make the playoffs."

If there's any place where the Stewart-Haas Racing driver could win, this weekend at New Hampshire is it. He led 25 laps on his way to the win there last year. He started on the pole and finished seventh in 2020. He led 42 laps and finished third in 2018.

And some of the best days in his career aren't even visible on his New Hampshire stat sheet. In 2010, Almirola was Jimmie Johnson's standby relief driver at New Hampshire in case Johnson's wife went into labor, and Almirola — without a full-time ride at the time — had a stellar practice run that had people asking about his availability for the following season.

"I got in the champ's car and went out and practiced and made a 20-lap run and went as quick as he did, if not faster, and was really good for all 20 laps of that run," Almirola said. 

"Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports gave me a lot of praise and talked highly of me. All the crew chiefs standing on top of the haulers watching the 48 car go around the racetrack with a different driver in it and still being fast just changed people's opinion and perspective of who I was as a race-car driver."

Almirola landed at JR Motorsports for one season, finished fourth in the Xfinity Series standings and parlayed that into a full-time Cup ride driving for Richard Petty. He is now in his 11th season as a full-time Cup driver.

He has said this will be his last full-time season, but he wouldn't rule out running select races in future years. With SHR not yet having replaced him and no driver seeming to have emerged as a leading candidate to do so, there has been chatter about whether Almirola would consider returning for one more full-time season, especially if his longtime sponsor, Smithfield, decides to return to the organization.

"I haven't really put a whole lot of thought into it," Almirola said July 2 at Road America when asked about reconsidering his retirement decision. "I really am focused on this year, and I really embrace this year.

"It has been an enjoyable year. It has been fun. ... We've run good. We haven't run exceptional, but we've run good, and we're in the hunt, like we always are, to make the playoffs. From my standpoint, I'm focused on this year."

Could Aric Almirola return to SHR in 2023?

Aric Almirola announced prior to the season that 2022 would be his last full-time Cup season. With SHR not having named a replacement, has he considered reversing his decision?

As he said, Almirola is focused on making this another playoff year. He has made the playoffs five times in his career, including each of the past four years.

"I feel like I'm having as good of a year as I've had ... when the playoffs were achieved and obtained," he said. "To be on the out right now speaks to the competitiveness of the series right now and just how much parity there is."

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What to watch for

New Hampshire, a flat, 1-mile oval, could race like Gateway, a relatively flat, 1.25-mile oval, or the flat, 1-mile Phoenix or even the flat, 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway.

Drivers will be shifting — possibly two times in each turn — and it could be difficult to pass.

At Gateway, it was the Toyotas that seemed to be the best (though Joey Logano in a Ford won the race), and the Fords of Chase Briscoe and Ryan Blaney led the majority of the laps at Phoenix. Martinsville? That was a Hendrick-dominated race, led by William Byron and Chase Elliott.

In other words, this could be anybody's race. So watch practice and qualifying because those who start up front will feel good about being in the mix at the end.

Thinking out loud

Tyler Reddick signing with 23XI Racing for 2024 and beyond helps plenty of other drivers whose contracts come up over the next 18 months. Why? It takes maybe the best free agent off the table, meaning teams won't be saving money in their wallets in case of landing Reddick.

Stewart-Haas Racing, which still needs to find a replacement for Almirola for next year and possibly for Kevin Harvick after 2023, now knows it can focus on drivers other than Reddick and possibly pay more to other drivers looking to join its stable. Also, Kyle Busch, who needs a new deal for next year, knows Joe Gibbs Racing doesn't have Reddick in its sights.

Among those who are free agents after next year, a driver such as Alex Bowman, who has performed well but been somewhat inconsistent, won't have to wonder if his team is in the Reddick sweepstakes.

Social spotlight 

They said it

"Franchise drivers don't come around that often. And so if there's ever one that you feel like you can grab, you go after it, and you do whatever it takes to make that happen. And then you work on the details later." — Denny Hamlin on hiring Tyler Reddick for 2024

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!


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