Aric Almirola looks to be winning bet in Cup playoffs

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Second verse, same as the first – or maybe even better?

That’s the tune Aric Almirola is humming heading into the NASCAR Cup playoff opener this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Almirola comes into the race ranked 14th in the 16-driver playoffs. If that sounds very familiar, it’s because it is — he also entered last year’s playoffs in 14th place.

And look how that turned out: Almirola was one of the most pleasant surprises of last year’s playoffs, advancing to the third round and ultimately finished fifth in the final standings. That was higher than former champions including seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson, as well as Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski, earning seven top-10s, three top-fives and a win during that 10-race playoff run.

Can he potentially do the same or even better in his second go-round in the playoffs driving the No. 10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing?

“Last year, we didn’t have much of an expectation going into the playoffs,” Almirola said in a media release. “We were a new team and were really getting acquainted with each other still.

“After going through the playoffs and almost making it to the championship at Homestead and finishing fifth in the points, I feel like we have set expectations and a standard. First off, we expected to be in the playoffs – anything less would be a disappointment. Now, our standard from last year is what we’re shooting for. We want to win races in the playoffs and advance through the rounds.

“We want to do better. If we don’t, it wouldn’t necessarily be a disappointment, but we have high hopes to achieve more success than we did last year.”

Almirola’s playoffs hopes last season got a big boost when he earned a pass into the third round with his win at Talladega. While he’s winless thus far in 2019, Almirola’s 10 top-10s this season have laid a foundation going into the playoffs that shows he’s more than capable of winning again like he did at ‘Dega, if not another one or more victories on top of that.

Going to Las Vegas couldn’t be a more appropriate time for Almirola. Given what he did last year and the potential he has for this year’s playoffs, don’t be surprised if a lot more fans bet on Almirola’s chances to reach the final round at Miami and still be in contention for the Cup championship.

“The playoffs are about being at your best every second, every minute, every hour and every day,” he said. “We’re ready to do that.”

History is already on his side: he’s made three starts at LVMS in the No. 10 and has come away with a top-10 finish each time.

From Las Vegas, it’s just a matter of maintaining consistency while continuing to push forward and ignoring the increasing pressure from race to race and from the first to third rounds of the playoffs. This is crunch time, and no one has to tell Almirola how significant it is.

“It’s really intense,” the Tampa, Florida native said. “Everyone takes their level of competition and ratchets it up a notch.

“It seems like everybody gets that much better. You have to be perfect in every aspect. You have to be perfect in practice, qualifying, pit stops and your focus has to ramp up. If it’s not perfect, you have to be ready to recover.”

And getting off to a good start on a 1.5-mile track, especially when there are four tracks in the 10-race playoffs that boast that length.

“It’s crucial to really excel at the intermediate tracks,” Almirola said. “We have so many of them on the schedule and, if you can get them figured out, they can make a huge impact on your season.

“We’ve seen it so many times where teams get something figured out at those tracks, those teams start running up front every weekend. If you look at the schedule, most of the tracks on the circuit are intermediate tracks and the most important races if you’re in the hunt for a championship.

“We found a lot of speed and now it’s time to dial the handling in and hopefully go on a tear of winning at these tracks.”

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Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather

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CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene

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Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”

 

 

 

Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans

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CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”