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Aric Almirola cleared to race this weekend at New Hampshire

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Richard Petty Motorsports announced Wednesday that doctors have cleared Aric Almirola to race this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Almirola has been out since suffering a T5 compression fracture in a May 13 crash at Kansas Speedway. He was expected to be out eight to 12 weeks.

Almirola received approval after a test Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“It felt great to be back in the racecar yesterday,” Almirola said in a statement. “After racing in the Monster Energy Series for five and a half years, it got to be routine, and I took it for granted. When something gets taken away from you at a moment’s notice like that, it has certainly made me appreciate my passion for racing and my desire to compete at this level. The thrill of running 200 miles per hour in a stock car was something that I had honestly lost a little bit. After being out of the car for eight weeks, the passion is back, now more than ever.
“Physically, I felt great in the car and had no pain associated with the injury during (Tuesday’s) test. I’d like to sincerely thank all of the medical personnel that have helped me through this process, my family, my friends, my team and all the fans that supported me. I’m very grateful to Bubba (Wallace), Regan (Smith) and Billy (Johnson) for all of their efforts subbing for me both on and off the track. I’m excited to get back to racing against all my friends and peers in the Monster Energy Series.”

Regan Smith filled in for Almirola in the Monster Energy Open during All-Star weekend, the Coca-Cola 600 (finished 22nd) and Dover (34th). Darrell Wallace Jr. drove the car at Pocono (26th), Michigan (19th), Daytona (15th) and Kentucky (11th). Billy Johnson finished 22nd in the car at Sonoma.

Long: 2018 schedule provides big test for one track; other musings on changes

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For all the talk about Indianapolis’ move to the last race before the playoffs or Charlotte’s road course event, the track that will face the most scrutiny from Tuesday’s 2018 schedule announcement is Richmond International Raceway.

Although the racing has been better when the track hosted day races, Richmond will go back to two night races next year and its September event moves into the playoffs after serving as the cutoff race since 2004. 

The change comes at a critical time for Richmond, a favorite among drivers but a track that has seen waning fan interest — thus the flip-flopping from night to day back to night events to please a fanbase that wants good racing but doesn’t want a sunburn. The spring crowd, no doubt affected by unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, was disappointing.

What makes the schedule change more critical for the track is what could be next. International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility, has slated Richmond as next for upgrades after Phoenix Raceway’s $178 million makeover is completed late next year.

While crowds have thinned at all tracks in the last decade, Richmond has seen its seating capacity cut from 110,000 in 2009 to its current capacity of 59,000, according to ISC annual reports. The 46.4 percent decline is the largest percentage capacity reduction among ISC’s 12 tracks that host Cup events.

The question becomes if the crowd continues to thin — even though Richmond is a day’s drive for nearly half of the U.S. population — will it be worthwhile for ISC to make the investments to the track? Or would it be better for ISC to invest in another of its facilities?

Something that could help Richmond is what will take place this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track’s upper groove is being treated by the same PJ1 TrackBite compound used at Bristol to improve the racing.

What’s unique is that the compound is applied to an asphalt track instead of a concrete track such as Bristol. If it entices drivers to use the high lane for part of the race, that will be significant. The challenge is that as the race moves into the evening and cooler temperatures, the bottom groove will be the fastest way around.

Richmond seemed to have a good solution when it sealed the track from 1988-2002 but hasn’t done since. The time seems right to do something to the track with two Cup night races. 

Drivers say that the best racing is during the day when conditions are the hottest. That’s not the most enjoyable conditions for fans. So fans who wanted night racing back at Richmond will get it for both events.

Fans should be careful what they wish for because cool, evening temperatures are not conducive to the best type of racing.

DAYTONA CHANGES

Another alteration to the schedule is that Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash will be held on the same day, Feb. 11, a week before the 500.

It’s a nice move to tighten the schedule, but why can’t more be done?

Does Daytona need to be held over two weekends?

“I would say certainly we talked about a lot of things,’’ said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations when asked about shortening Daytona Speedweeks. “But when you kick off the season with your biggest event of the year, and you have a number of races to support that kickoff of the season, Daytona has a portfolio of races that commands a number of weeks. I think our fans look forward to spending a lot of time in Daytona in the month of February.

“Certainly there’s consideration around the race teams, the amount of time they spend. But when you talk about the biggest event of your season, it certainly warrants a couple of weeks based on what we have from a content standpoint.”

I’m not convinced. I think you could compress it into one week and make the week more entertaining.

Here’s one possible way how:

Tuesday: Cup haulers park in garage.

Wednesday: Cup teams practice and qualify. Truck teams park in garage.

Thursday: Cup teams compete in the Duels. Xfinity teams park in garage. Truck teams practice.

Friday: Cup teams practice. Xfinity teams practice. Truck teams qualify and race. Cup teams in the Clash practice.

Saturday: Cup final practice for the Daytona 500. Xfinity teams race. The Clash is held an hour after the Xfinity race ends.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

A doubleheader with the Xfinity Series and the Clash the day before the Daytona 500 creates more reasons for fans to be there for the weekend.

Maybe there’s a better way, but the point is cut a weekend out of Speedweeks and that can give teams a break at some other point in the season (or just start the season a few days later).

As the sport looks to be more efficient with its race weekends — Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville each will have qualifying a few hours before the race in the second half of the season — cutting a weekend out of Daytona only makes sense.

Also, watch for more two-day Cup weekends if the experiment works this year.

INDY THE RIGHT RACE BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS?

Indianapolis taking the spot as the final race before the playoffs raises some questions.

When Richmond was there, at least many more teams had a chance to win. At Indianapolis, those that can win are fewer. Typically, the best teams excel at Indy because they have the best aero and engine packages. That’s not something a smaller team can overcome as much as it can on a short track.

The notion of an upstart winning their way into the playoffs is less likely at Indianapolis. Those who need stage points in a last-gasp effort to make the playoffs will have to gamble. Truthfully, that could make Indy more dramatic in some ways. Paul Menard won the 2011 race on a fuel gamble, but such payoffs are not likely to happen often and then what you are left with?

Something to consider is that the Xfinity cars will race there in July with restrictor plates and other modifications. If those changes enhance the racing, then it would make sense for the Cup cars to go with something similar. If NASCAR can get its cars to make passes like the IndyCars (there were 54 lead changes in last year’s Indianapolis 500), then you’d have something worth talking about.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you’re left with the tradeoff that Richmond gives the playoffs two short tracks.

A NOVEL IDEA BUT WILL IT WORK?

Charlotte’s roval for the playoffs will smack of desperation to some, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, one has to applaud the sport and the track looking for a different way to entertain fans. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come after the greatest risks.

While drivers will race on the infield road course, they still nearly will race all the way around the 1.5-mile track. If the action on the road course section mimics what fans see at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, then this will be a good move. If not, what then?

Charlotte’s format will present challenges for crew chiefs in setting up the car, but the key is going to be action. Few people go to races to watch the crew chiefs. It’s about the drivers. And it will be about contact on the road course.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Even with all the changes to the front half of the playoff schedule, three of the final five races are on 1.5-mile speedways.

Cassidy said NASCAR isn’t as concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the number of intermediate tracks because I think what you’ve seen, if you want to focus on the back end of the playoffs, focus on the racing that we’ve seen at intermediate tracks, each of the intermediate tracks as kind of taking shape from having its own distinct personality from a racing standpoint,’’ he said.

“I think you saw that at Texas this year with the changes they made, again, a vision to change things up on that side, and to create a different racing dynamic at a mile‑and‑a‑half track.

“What you saw at Kansas a couple weeks ago kind of speaks for itself.

  “And then I don’t think you could argue that Homestead has provided some of the most compelling racing you could ever imagine to bring home a championship.’’

Miami is the best 1.5-mile track and has produced some good racing in the season finale. Nothing wrong with it where it is. Kansas has had its ups and downs but did have 21 lead changes earlier this month in what was viewed as an entertaining race. With its new track surface, we’ll see where Texas goes from its race in April.

If all three can provide entertaining racing and allow drivers to move through the field instead of being stuck in a line, then they should stay in their spots. But if they can’t do so, then NASCAR should not be afraid of making further changes to the playoff schedule.

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NASCAR America: Aric Almirola recounts Kansas crash that caused back injury

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Last Saturday, Aric Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports announced Almirola would miss at least eight to 12 weeks with a T5 compression fracture in his back. The injury is a result of a violent three-car accident the previous weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Following the announcement, Almirola sat down with NASCAR America to gives his account of the accident. The interview can be watched in the above video.

MORE: Almirola’s greatest pain is not being able to fulfill children’s wishes

Following Almirola’s account, NASCAR America analysts Parker Kligerman and Kyle Petty discussed the accident and the state of safety in the sport today.

With the many years his family has been in the sport and the tragedies it has experienced seen, including the death of his son Adam Petty in a 2000 Busch Series practice session at New Hampshire Motor speedway, Kyle Petty said Almirola’s accident hits “close to home.”

“When you’ve been in the seat and another family trusts you to take care of their son or their husband or their father, whatever it may be, and it’s our responsibility to look after Aric,” Petty said. “We talk about frontal impacts, we talk about rear impacts, we talk about side impacts. There’s been so much written and spoken about concussion. … But how many times do you see a car fall out of the air? You can’t cover everything. That’s what NASCAR continues to look at, that’s what we all continue to look at. But this sport is never, ever, ever, ever going to be completely safe.”

Watch the rest of the video below for all of Petty and Kligerman’s thoughts on the Almirola and safety in NASCAR.

Long: Aric Almirola’s greatest pain is not fulfilling his children’s wishes

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CONCORD, N.C. — The pain in Aric Almirola’s back is nothing like the pain in his heart.

When he gingerly exited an airplane Sunday, a day after fracturing his T5 vertebrae at Kansas Speedway, he was greeted by his children. Four-year-old son Alex and 3-year-old daughter Abby wanted to hug their father.

“I couldn’t,’’ Almirola said in a soft voice.

They wanted him to pick them up.

“I couldn’t.’’

Hugs and lifts will be limited for while. Almirola is expected to need eight to 12 weeks to recover from the back injury he suffered last weekend. His car pounded Joey Logano’s Ford, sending the rear of Almirola’s Ford up about 6 feet before crashing back to the track.

Almirola moved haltingly Friday, sitting still as he talked because of the “excruicatingly painful’’ injury.

“There’s no way to relieve it,’’ Almirola said. “There’s no comfort. If I sit for too long, it hurts. If I stand up, it feels better for a few minutes and then it starts to hurt. If I lay down, it feels better for a few minutes and then it starts to hurt.

“I can’t really lay on my back because it puts pressure on my spine. I can’t lay for too long on my side because then my spine sags and it puts pressure on it. There’s just a constant ache.’’

For someone whose focus as a child was to be a racer — “racing was Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,’’ he said — sitting out of the car for so long will be difficult. But it won’t be as hard for the 33-year-old as it is for his two children.

They don’t understand daddy is hurt.

“I don’t have a Band-Aid on it. I don’t have blood or a scab, so visually they don’t understand I’ve got a broken bone in my back,’’ Almirola told NBC Sports.

Almirola said he felt a stabbing pain in his back when his car struck Logano’s and the pain intensified when the rear of Almirola’s car slammed the ground.

He felt such a burning sensation that he thought his back was on fire. That’s why he lowered the window net of his car. He wasn’t trying to signal that he was OK, he was trying to get out.

Almriola removed his steering wheel. When he threw it on top of the dash and extended his hands, the pain “took my breath away.’’

He soon saw that he wasn’t on the fire. The son of firefighter, he knew that with his back pain it was important to keep the spine stable. Safety officials cut him out of the car.

William Heisel, director of OrthoCarolina Motorsports, which is treating Almirola, said the driver’s injuries are worse than the compression fracture Denny Hamlin suffered in 2013 in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway.

Heisel also said that Almirola’s injury has “outstanding healing potential.’’

The key is to be patient, Hamlin said. He missed four races because of his injury.

“After about two weeks I felt relatively normal,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports. “There were certain positions in which I would sit that I would feel it and I knew that it wasn’t right, but I was aching to get in the car as quick as I could. I maybe rushed it a bit, but I feel like we waited until it was safe.

“That’s the frustrating part. Drivers don’t mind not getting in a car when they’re not feeling well, it’s when you feel fine that it hurts.’’

Almirola said he’ll wait as long as doctors want him to before climbing back into the car.

While he recovers, his kids will keep him company. And take care of him.

When daddy needs a water, Abby dutifully runs to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle. When daddy needs fresh ice packs for his back, Alex goes to the freezer to get those.

“We’ve got a pretty good system,’’ Almirola said. “They’re taking pretty good care of me.’’

But they are kids and it’s tough on them that daddy is hurt.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time on the couch,’’ Almirola said. “About our most quality time we’ve had over the last week is sitting on the couch and watching TV. They snuggle up next to me.’’

Those are special moments for Almirola.

“They have a way of making you feeling better for sure when they crawl up on the couch, show you they love you and care about you,’’ he said. “That lasts about five minutes and they’re ready to run around. Alex wants me to get down on the ground and play cars with him. Abby wants me to walk her baby stroller with her, chase them around the house or go out to the front yard and watch them ride their bikes.’’

But each time, his response is the same to them.

“Can’t do that.’’

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Aric Almirola out at least eight to 12 weeks with back injury

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CONCORD, N.C. — Aric Almirola could miss eight to 12 weeks recovering from the T5 compression fracture he suffered last Saturday in a crash at Kansas Speedway and will race when he is cleared by his doctors.

Regan Smith is substituting for Almirola in the No. 43 Ford this weekend in the Monster Energy Open. Richard Petty Motorsports did not announce Friday who will drive the No. 43 after this weekend.

“I’m not happy about that,” Almirola said of his time out of the car. “If I get back in the race car two weeks too soon, it’s just going to add two more starts in that column in the stat book. If I were to get in another similar accident and not be properly healed, you’re talking about potentially being paralyzed from the belly button down. I’m not going to risk that, I’ve got a lot of baseball to play with my son and I’d like to dance with my daughter someday at her wedding.”

RPM CEO Brian Moffitt said the team is still working with its partners to establish will drive the No. 43 following the weekend.

Next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first Cup points race Almirola has not started since the October 2010 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Almirola suffered his injury in a high-speed collision with the cars of Joey Logano and Danica Patrick during last weekend’s Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway. The race was stopped for nearly 28 minutes so Almirola could be safely removed from the car and transported to a nearby hospital for observation. He was released the next morning.

“As far as the pain, it’s pretty bad,” Almirola said. Who described his pain level at “9.5” right after the wreck. Almirola said he hadn’t taken pain medication in 48 hours. He joked it was in order to “not look drunk” for the press conference.

Almirola said he does not know which part of the accident caused his injury.

After reviewing the wreck, Almirola said he was two seconds behind it when it began.

“In race car racer terms, that is a long way,” Almirola said, who had committed to the highest lane on the track right as the wreck began.

He braked and turned left to avoid it, got loose and ran through fluids from the wreck, which prevented him from slowing down.

“From that point, I felt I was on railroad tracks,” Almirola said. “There was nothing I could do, I was on ice.”

When he impacted Logano’s car, Almirola instantly felt pain, describing it as being stabbed by a knife. When the No. 43 landed back on all four tires, Almirola described the pain as if the knife was being “twisted up in my back.”

Almirola believes if Logano’s car had been three feet lower on the track, he would have hit him in the door and Lognao would have been “seriously injured.”

On Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Almirola told him the springs in Almirola’s car were not in place when his car landed back on the track, making the impact harder.

“The springs didn’t actually fall out of the car and disappear, I think they came out of the spring bucket,” Almirola said. “When the car came back to the garage, the springs were not upright in the spring buckets. I’m not 100 percent sure and NASCAR has reviewed the video, the R&D center has and there’s nothing showing the springs physically held up the car upon impact with Joey’s car. When the came back down it violently hit on the left-side frame rail and the left side jack post. The R&D center shows that as well.”

Almirola said the energy from the impact of the six to seven-foot drop sent the energy into his back.

Almirola said safety teams did a “great job” in extracting him from his car, which required cutting off the top of the vehicle.

“They were very cautious and very careful,” Almirola said. “My dad is a fire fighter, so I’ve always grown up with someone of that mentality and understanding he is a fire fighter. I know the spine is nothing to mess around with. So if you have neck pain in an accident or back pain it’s extremely important to make sure you keep the spine stable. I knew right away I had a severe amount of back pain. An unbelievable amount.”

Almirola noted that he put down his window net as soon as the wreck was over. That was a result of seeing the fire coming from Patrick’s car and the pain in his back.

“I thought I was on fire,” Almirola said. “So I was panicking a little bit trying to get my window net down and steering wheel off to get out of the car. I got my window net down just based on pure adrenaline. I got my steering wheel off and when I went to throw my steering wheel off the dash and I extended arms out in front of me, that intensified the pain even more and it kind of took my breath away.”

Once he realized his car was not on fire, he waited for the safety crews to arrive.

During the week there was much talk about the publication and usage of photos showing Almirola being removed from the car in a neck brace.

The driver said he was “pretty pissed off” about the use of the pictures.

“I think that is extremely unprofessional,” Almirola said. “They have no medical expertise whatsoever. They had no idea what was wrong with me. They didn’t know if I was bleeding to death, they didn’t know if I was paralyzed. They didn’t know anything. But they used it as an opportunity to go and snap some pictures of me. They were literally three feet from the accident, hanging through the catchfence with their shutters running wide open the entire time. I’m pretty upset about that.

“I feel like it’s wrong. I have a wife and two kids who are sitting at home who have no real idea what’s going on. … They’re finding out more through looking at images online or during the race broadcast than our PR department or people at the race track getting back to them and I think that’s wrong. I was obviously in a very vulnerable situation and I’m disappointed to say the least.”

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