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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Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.