Eleven years after he first climbed in a Cup car, Aric Almirola feels like a “rookie driver again.”
That’s thanks in part to the rejuvenating effect of being the newest driver of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Ford.
Almirola, who turned 34 Wednesday, will compete in his fifth race for SHR today at Auto Club Speedway. After the first four, Almirola is 10th in the point standings.
“I am literally showing up every weekend with a blank slate,” Almirola said Friday at Auto Club Speedway. “I’m studying driver data and watching old race footage and doing all the things that I’ve always done, but now I have a new team and teammates to lean on and it’s just so different than anything I’ve had in the past, so the learning curve is still there and I feel like I’m learning every week and getting better every week.”
With the West Coast swing coming to a close, Almirola said Fridays on race weekends have been the “most difficult part of the week.”
“We show up with no history together, no notebook and every driver wants something a little different,” said Almirola, who was third fastest in Friday’s lone practice session. “So just trying to figure that out and figure out the differences between me and my teammates so that Johnny (Klausmeier), my crew chief, can hone in on something better to show up with and for me to gain confidence in that to unload off the truck at a place like (this), where you’re running 215 mph down into Turn 1 and your first lap on the race track is a qualifying lap. It’s really difficult.”
Almirola said the Friday difficulties are exasperated by the shortened practice times for teams.
But Almirola is helped through leaning on advice and data from his three teammates – Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer.
“To look at all their driver data and to see that they all do something a little different and they all want something a little different out of their race car, it gives me confidence to just go over there to Stewart-Haas Racing and just do what I do,” Almirola said. “They’ve got fast race cars and they’ve got really smart people and they’ll be able to conform and work around my style and that I don’t have to adapt and drive like anybody else. That’s been the most eye-opening thing for me is that all of those guys are always fast, and they always run up front and they qualify up front and they race up front and they all do something different.”
After being able to arrive at the track with “loads of confidence” in the early years of his Cup career, Almirola said he had “been beat down” over the “last several years” due to mediocre results. He arrived at SHR after six seasons and just one win with Richard Petty Motorsports.
Almirola said signing with SHR gave him “a new lease on life and with my career.”
“It makes me happy in not only our team, but in myself to be able to get in that car and go get the job done to be able to at least be competitive and on a level playing field with at least two of my other teammates,” Almirola said. “We’ve got one (Harvick) that’s just incredible right now and they’ve been doing a great job, but I think for us as a new team and a new group of guys all working together I feel like we’re off to a really good start.”
Almirola has 10 starts at Auto Club Speedway, but he’s never finished better than 11th. He was one of the 13 drivers who did not get to qualify for today’s race after their cars failed inspection. He will start 27th.
The 2-mile track actually played a small role in Almirola’s recovery from a back injury last year.
“Six weeks after I broke my back (at Kansas Speedway) I went to Ford’s seven-post shaker rig and sat in my race car on that shaker rig with the car running a mock lap around this race track and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Holy cow, is it really that rough?’” Almriola said. “Then we showed up back here and the answer is yes, it really is that rough. But my back feels great. … I feel like I am better than 100 percent.