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.