Analysis: Lacking speed, Aric Almirola excels in other key stat categories

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A lack of speed, up until last weekend’s race at Nashville Superspeedway, had defined the 2021 season for Aric Almirola; however, at no point was everything a loss. As their underlying statistics showcase, the driver and his team are far better than their results would have you believe.

At his best, Almirola is a dark horse. When Stewart-Haas Racing initially struggled to set up around NASCAR’s new rear wheel template, he was among the three SHR drivers hit the hardest. It appeared as if Almirola went as his equipment went, the sign of a driver in over his head and a team not nearly as inventive as the organizational bellwether led by Rodney Childers.

And while it’s true that before Nashville, Almirola’s 24.5-place average finish was a stain of sorts, in line with Danica Patrick’s results record in the same car, a look at this driver and his program from a more macro level reveals far more daylight than any his predecessor had. They haven’t been especially good, but they aren’t as bad as their surface-level stats suggest — there’s nuance to explore here.

Frankly, there’s a lot going right despite a lot going bad.

Restarts are Almirola’s biggest strength

Almirola’s highlight reel for the season is void of restarts — he notably lost the lead on the initial start last weekend at Nashville — but in totality, his ability to retain position from within the first seven rows is workmanlike to the point of elite efficiency. In fact, his rate (72.73%) leads the series, slightly better than those of Kyle Larson (72.15%), Ryan Blaney (71.62%) and Brad Keselowski (71.23%), each of them superb short-run drivers.

His improvement in retention percentage from last year (57.47%) to this year is a vital one, even if he isn’t frequenting the top 14 as prolifically as he did last year. It appears legitimate; he ranks seventh in retention specifically in choose-rule races, omitting Daytona, Talladega, the road courses and the volatility of those tracks that might goose restarting numbers. If his second half sees more regular restarts from these running whereabouts, then on paper, he’s ripe for a regression, but that doesn’t alter what’s already happened. When he’s been near the front when taking the green flag, he’s kept spots at a competitive clip. As dicey as the restart windows are in modern-day NASCAR, it’s tough to expect much more than that.

Almirola is passing more efficiently than his statistical expectation

Based on his average running position for the season, 49.12% of his pass encounters were expected to fall in his favor. That’s a rate that’d come out to a negative pass differential, an anticipated net loss of 24 spots. But Almirola has passed more efficiently, beyond his expectation, for a differential of -6, symbolizing a surplus differential of +18.

His best outings in regards to passing have come on 750-horsepower tracks, where his +3.01% surplus passing value ranks fourth, trailing Corey LaJoie (+3.71%), Chase Elliott (+3.38%) and Larson (+3.12%). It’s netted him 24.48 positions beyond his statistical expectation.

Currently 151 points from the playoff cutoff, it’d most likely take a win in the next nine races to secure a postseason spot, at which point, half of the playoff schedule is comprised of 750-horsepower oval tracks, a slate falling into his wheelhouse for 2021.

An unexpected green-flag pit cycle stalwart

The ability to score and retain more track position than the car’s speed should allow extends to crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, who’s dutifully chipped in a series-best 52 positions across green-flag pit cycles as a necessary supplement.

It seems and is easier, at times, to devise a strategy around landing a bounty of spots and potential stage points when there’s inherently nothing to lose while mired so deep in the running order, but it’s still the result of heady planning that requires deliberate timing and proper execution. To wit, several of Almirola’s surrounding competition — notably the teams of Chase Briscoe (61.76%), Erik Jones (59.38%) and Bubba Wallace (57.58%) — are retaining green-flag pit cycle positions over 12 percentage points less often than the 74.07% rate at which Bugarewicz is successfully defending spots.

Much like Almirola’s restarting, this is an area of improvement for Bugarewicz, who retained the No. 10 team’s running spot on just 55.56% of green-flag pit cycles in 2020.

Without speed, nothing else matters

When Almirola backed up his pole-winning lap with the third-best median lap in the Nashville race, a combination that led to his best finish of the season, it was like nothing we’ve seen from the No. 10 team since last fall.

Ranked 15th last season, Almirola’s car is the 21st-fastest this year (it ranked 25th prior to Nashville), according to its average median lap rank. Speed rankings tend to be the statistic most correlative with finishing position; therefore, ranking this low, as Almirola does, masks all the good a team is able to accomplish. Their efforts in restarting, in passing and on green-flag pit cycles aren’t visible on the results sheet, namely because they lack any sort of competitive speed.

It’s also helped drive up Almirola’s crash rate, currently 0.47 times race, tied for the fifth-highest in the series. While it’s possible he’s overdriven the car at times to compensate for the lack of speed, it’s very much uncharacteristic of the 37-year-old driver, based on his crash history. The last time his crash rate fared worse was in 2009 (0.63 times per race in an eight-race sample size).

If Nashville is a sign of things to come, then it signifies a return to normalcy. Almirola won’t be among the betting favorites for the championship in the odd chance he secures a playoff spot, but the driver’s ability and the team’s strength could be more accurately reflected in the week-to-week running order.

That normalcy, and the results it’d bring, would represent a fair reward for a team that’s excelled in key categories to this point in the season despite lacking the component of auto racing that matters most.

Where are they now? Scott Riggs races with son, Layne

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Scott Riggs, who raced for 15 years in NASCAR’s top three national series, now is guiding the racing career of his 20-year-old son, Layne.

And things are going well.

Layne won this year’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Late Model championship, scoring 16 wins in 43 starts and edging former series champion Peyton Sellers by four points for the title.

Riggs thus became the youngest champion in Weekly Series history.

“It all started when Layne was 10 years old, mostly just something to entertain him and to have some fun,” Scott told NBC Sports. “But it’s turned into a full-fledged job. My life and plate have been full.”

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes

The Riggs family’s race shop is located in Bahama, North Carolina, Riggs’ home base during his NASCAR career. Scott describes himself as the “truck driver, spotter, crew chief and in-shop mechanic.”

“I am very tired,” he said.

The team, which depends on volunteers, didn’t plan to race in so many events this season, but when Layne started the year with a string of victories, it made sense to chase the national championship and give him a chance to be the youngest winner ever.

“To chase it that hard and be that close and then to win it, it was very exhausting,” Scott said. “It was a very big relief to finish the year.”

Success on short tracks resulted in Layne racing in three Camping World Truck Series events this year with Halmar Racing. He had a best finish of seventh at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in his series debut.

MORE: Snowball Derby attracts top NASCAR drivers

Scott Riggs ended his NASCAR driving career in 2014 in the Truck Series. He won five Truck races and four Xfinity races and ran 208 Cup races without a win. He made his Truck debut in 1999, moved to Xfinity in 2002 (winning Rookie of the Year) and then to Cup in 2004.

Riggs, now 51, raced in the Cup Series from 2004-13 with stops at MB2 Motorsports and with teams owned by Gene Haas, Tommy Baldwin and Ray Evernham, among others. He had four top-five finishes.

“I think I was very fortunate and the timing was right for me to move up through the ranks and get so many good opportunities,” Riggs said. “I raced late models for a long time, and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to get in a truck. Won some races and poles and won races and poles in Xfinity.”

MORE: Jody Ridley’s upset for the ages

He ran out of chances in Cup as team models shifted, including some downsizing and mergers.

“I felt like I couldn’t get an opportunity that I had worked for and earned,” Riggs said. “It was hard for me. I was bitter for a year or so. But I look back, and a realization came over me that I was fortunate to have that time with my kids when they were at the right ages. I got to watch them do their things and just be the dad I wanted to be — not being gone four out of every seven days racing.

“I don’t think I’d have the relationship I have today with my kids if I had had a longer time in the sport.”

 

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

MORE: An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley wins at Dover

3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Memorable images from 2022 NASCAR season

6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

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9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Snowball Derby entry list includes NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Truck drivers

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Four Cup drivers are among those entered for Sunday’s 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The Cup drivers entered are former series champion Brad Keselowski, playoff competitor William Byron, two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and incoming Cup rookie Noah Gragson, who advanced to the Xfinity title race this year.

Also entered: Josh Berry, who competed in the Xfinity championship race this year, and Ty Majeski, who competed in the Truck championship race this year.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby. Gragson won the race in 2018. Jones won the event in 2012 and ’13.

Others entered include:

Chandler Smith, who won the 2021 Snowball Derby and will drive for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2023, is listed on the entry list but stated on social media he will not be competing.

The Snowball Derby is among the more prestigious Super Late Model races on the calendar and coming after the NASCAR season makes it easier for more Cup, Xfinity and Truck competitors to take part in the event.

Qualifying takes place Saturday. The Snowball Derby is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Racing America will stream Sunday’s race for $49.99. A three-day viewing pass can be purchased for $74.99.

 

 

An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley’s 1981 victory at Dover

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NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.

Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.

On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.

Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.

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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.

Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.

When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.

Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.

“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.

“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”

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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.

“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”

The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.

“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”

Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.

MORE: Five laps that impacted Cup season

Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.

“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”

Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.

“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.