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.
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 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.”