Aric Almirola: ‘We have the potential’ to win every week

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A year ago, Aric Almirola viewed his racing season like a “box of chocolates.”

Week-to-week “you never knew what you were gonna’ get,” Almirola said of his final season at Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola definitely didn’t expect to break his back in a May wreck at Kansas Speedway, where NASCAR races this weekend.

That injury forced Almirola out of the No. 43 for seven points races. He was replaced by Regan Smith, Billy Johnson and his eventual full-time replacement, Darrell Wallace Jr.

Friday at Kansas Speedway, Almirola said he exorcised any lingering demons from the track when he returned in the fall and finished ninth.

“I never really let my mind drift back to that place,” Almirola said. “To come back here and kind of get somewhat of redemption on the race track and sort of put that to bed and come here and run as well as we did and run top 10, I think it’s a non-issue.”

Eleven races into his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola can say on a week-to-week basis, “I know what I’m gonna’ get.”

Entering tonight’s KC Masterpiece 400, in which he starts a season-best fourth, Almirola is three points out of 10th in the standings. At this point last year, he was 20th. He has four top-10 finishes this season and came within half a lap of winning the Daytona 500.

“Every week I know I’m gonna show up with a car that I know is gonna be fast and that it’s up to (crew chief) Johnny (Klausmeier) and myself to do the best that we can to make it a race-winning car. We have the product. We have the potential to have a race-winning car each and every week and we can see it internally amongst our teammates. We can look at what they have and that’s just gonna take time for Johnny and myself to continue to grow together and build a notebook together.”

Almirola made sure to point out just how inexperienced his team is, especially with Klausmeier, previously an engineer at SHR, at the helm.

“You’ve got to remember that Johnny is going on week 11 or week 12 of being a brand new crew chief,” Almirola said. “He was never crew chief in the Truck ranks and was never a crew chief in the Xfinity ranks, so having him and him being as new to it as it is, it’s gonna take him time to continue to evolve and develop. We’ve got a new lead race engineer that’s young and that’s one of the things that I think is so cool is that our team is really built for the future.”

Almirola is in search of his second career Cup victory. His first came in July 2014 at Daytona.

“Human nature is greed,” Almirola said. “You always want more, so if you would have told me going into the year before the season even started at Daytona that by Kansas in May we would be 11th in points, three points out of 10th and have an average finish of 12th, I would have probably said, ‘All right. That’s awesome. I’ll take it.'”

But he’s seen two of his teammates, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, win this year and seen Kurt Busch earn two top fives. It’s only fueled his “greed.”

But the 34-year-old driver has had the “calming voice” of owner Tony Stewart keep him in check.

“He’s been like, ‘Be patient. Your time is coming. Your group is young. Your group is new. You’re new to the organization. You’re meeting our expectations and then some,'” Almirola said. “So that’s just reassuring and it’s a confidence-builder for me.”

Austin Dillon’s car fails pre-race inspection, will start from rear

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Bristol, Tenn. — Austin Dillon‘s No. 3 Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection three times Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Dillon will start from the rear and his car chief, Greg Ebert, has been ejected from the event.

Dillon had qualified 18th.

Dillon will have to serve a 30-minute practice hold in two weeks at Darlington Raceway.

Kyle Larson seeks turnaround at ‘by far my favorite racetrack’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – With his team in a mini-slump in midsummer, Kyle Larson is back in his happy place, and the Chip Ganassi Racing driver wouldn’t mind returning more often.

“I love racing here,” Larson said Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I wish we could race here weekly. I think our sport would be in a good spot if we could.

“I didn’t watch a ton of NASCAR growing up, but I’d never miss a Bristol race. If you were to ask me what Bristol race stands out, I couldn’t tell you. I just loved watching Bristol. It was always a lot of fun. Ever since they added the progressive banking, it’s been a lot better, too, as far as style of racing goes. It’s by far my favorite NASCAR track.”

The love of Bristol grew only stronger Friday night as he won the Food City 300 and scored his first victory in 18 Cup and Xfinity starts at the 0.533-mile oval.

Larson will be trying for his first win in NASCAR’s premier series at the track – and his first in Cup this season – while starting from the pole position in tonight’s race.

A victory would be a welcome result for Larson’s team, which is virtually locked into the playoffs but has only two top 10s in six races since his memorable runner-up finish to Kyle Busch at Chicagoland Speedway.

While Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing seem to have gotten faster in recent weeks, Larson’s No. 42 Camaro seems to have tailed off slightly after easily being the best Chevy in the first half of the season.

“I don’t know where we might be off,” he said. “Nobody really honestly knows where other teams have gotten speed from, so we’re working on all areas, really, I’m pretty sure, to try and get faster. We have moments where we’re really fast, but I would say we’re just a little inconsistent from track to track.

“You look at last year, we were good everywhere. This year, we’re good at our good tracks. Not as good at the tracks that we have struggled at years prior.”

But what about starting and finishing 17th last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, where he won three consecutive races from 2016-17?

A loose wheel after his first pit stop mired Larson in traffic and out of sequence, and then contact on a restart hampered into using an older set of tires for the last run of the race.

“It just snowballed into a bad run where I felt like we were going to have a shot to run top 3 or 5, but it just doesn’t show for it, and other people look at it as we just ran bad all day,” he said. “If you look at lap times, we were running some of the fastest laps of the race, just buried in traffic. I feel like we’re not that bad. We just had a little bit of a bad luck that cost us finishes we deserved the last few weeks.”

The urgency to maximize his speed stems more from being well positioned in the playoffs than making the 16-driver field. Larson is one of three provisionally qualified who have no playoff points yet.

“That part is a little frustrating,” he said. “It makes you more nervous when it comes to the playoffs, but the good thing is there’s been three guys taking up all the playoff points, so the other ones don’t have a whole lot, either, but every point matters.

“You look at it as you need to win some stages and win a race, but I also view Bristol as being my best opportunity to get some playoff points. I feel like we can win both stages and win the race. Not easily but this is our best shot. That five to seven points would be huge.”

And after getting bumped from the lead by race winner Kyle Busch at Bristol in April, Larson has earned some leeway in playing rough – not that he plans to use it.

He prefers the “options” afforded by the 2007 addition of progressive banking (which was retrofitted in 2012 in a manner that often makes the top groove the fastest).

“If there was progressive banking 20 years ago, the racing would have been a lot better back then,” he said. “I’m not a fan of the bump and run. I’m just a fan of Bristol.

“I’d much rather see two to three wide racing at Bristol than single file. I think the racing is really good, and that’s why I love coming here to race.”

Staff picks for Bristol night race

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Here’s who NBC’s NASCAR writers think will triumph tonight under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway (6:46 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Dustin Long

Ryan Blaney gets the win he should have had at this track in April.

Nate Ryan

Kyle Larson. On Thursday, he told reporters he was convinced he could sweep both stages and win. On Friday, he took a big step toward convincing the rest of us.

Daniel McFadin

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins in his last good shot to get into the playoffs with a victory.

Dan Beaver

Really? I’m the only one going with Kyle Busch? I just hope everyone in my fantasy NASCAR league ignores him as well.

Trophy for Charlotte Roval race revealed

Dustin Long
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BRISTOL, Tenn. — The trophy for the Sept. 30 Cup race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval was revealed Saturday prior to the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The trophy is inspired by Bank of America, which sponsors the 400-kilometer race.

It is designed to resemble the Bank of America building in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina.

The track also announced a Sammy Hagar concert the night before the race. The “Rock the ROVAL” concert will be held at 9 p.m. ET on pit road.

 

Photo: Daniel McFadin
(Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)