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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