Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

NASCAR Banquet red carpet rundown of drivers and wives

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NASCAR drivers and their wives hit the red carpet Thursday night before the NASCAR Awards banquet.

Austin Dillon hosted the walk.

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Champion Joey Logano and his wife Brittnay attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Austin Dillon and his wife Whitney attends the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his wife Amy attends the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

 

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Kevin Harvick and his wife DeLana attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Kyle Busch and his wife Samantha attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Martin Truex Jr. and his girlfriend Sherry Pollex attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Clint Bowyer and his wife Lorra attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Kyle Larson and his wife Katelyn attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Brad Keselowski and his wife Paige attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Denny Hamlin and his wife Jordan Fish attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Kurt Busch and his wife Ashley attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Aric Almirola and his wife Janice attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 29: Alex Bowman and Emily Boat attend the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Celebration at the Wynn Las Vegas on November 29, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Breaking down Kevin Harvick’s statistical domination of 2018

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For most of 2018, the Cup title  appeared to be Kevin Harvick’s championship to lose with Kyle Busch pursuing closely.

NASCAR Statistical Service’s year-end report bears that assumption out.

Harvick led nearly every statistical category with Busch a close second.

In the championship race at Miami, Harvick faded ever so slightly and was only second best in many of the following statistical categories while Joey Logano stepped up to fill the void.

Average Running Position

Harvick’s average position on track in 2018 was 8.09 with Busch following in second at 8.17. In the final race at Miami, Harvick had the second-best average running position (3.10) behind Logano’s 2.80.

Driver Rating

The driver rating is NASCAR’s attempt to create an overview of each driver performs in a race. It takes into consideration the driver’s finish, average running position while on the lead lap in green flag conditions, average speed and fastest laps as well as a bevy of bonus points. Perfect is 150.

Harvick’s average driver rating for 2018 was 115.5; Busch was second with an average of 109.3. Logano was best at Miami with a 137.1.

Harvick had a perfect driver rating at Las Vegas in March.

Fastest Early in a Run

NASCAR tracks a driver’s speed during the first 25 percent of a run to determine who is fastest early.

At Miami, Harvick was ranked second in this category with an average of 161.799 mph. His average rank for the season was 3.97; Busch was second at 5.19. Logano had the fastest average at Miami with 162.088 mph.

Fastest Late in a Run

NASCAR tracks a driver’s speed during the last 25 percent of a run to determine who is fastest late.

When a driver is fastest early and late in a run, he is hard to beat. Harvick’s average ranking for this stat was 4.90; Busch was second at 5.59. Kyle Larson topped this category at Miami with a 153.843 mph average. Harvick (153.218 mph) was second.

Giving some credence to Martin Truex Jr.’s belief that he would have caught Logano on a long run is the fact that the No. 78 was third best (153.043) at Miami; Logano was sixth (152.437).

Fastest Laps

Harvick ran the fastest green flag lap 14.7 percent of the time during 2018; Busch was second at 11.3 percent. At Miami, Larson had the fastest lap 22.2 percent of the time. Harvick was second best at 15.7 percent.

Fastest on Restarts

Harvick tied Busch in this category with an average ranking of 6.81. Logano was best at Miami (165.199) with Harvick second (164.220)

Green Flag Speed

NASCAR tracks the average speed of each driver under green flag conditions. Harvick’s average rank for the season was 3.07; Busch was second at 4.44. In this category, Harvick led the field at Miami with an average of 157.484 mph. Truex (157.360) and Logano (157.183) were next on the chart.

Laps Led

Harvick led 1,990 laps during the season (19.6 percent), which was the most; Busch led the second most at 1,469 (14.5 percent). Logano led the most last at Miami (80) with Harvick second (58).

Laps in the Top 15

This is one of the few categories Harvick did not lead in 2018. He was second best with 8,665 laps in the top 15 (85.4 percent). Busch edged Harvick with 8,777 laps (86.5 percent). At Miami, five drivers spent all 267 laps in the top 15. They included the Championship 4 of Logano, Harvick, Busch and Truex plus Aric Almirola.

Percentage of Laps Run on the Lead Lap

This statistic helps explain the one above. A big part of the reason Harvick did not have the most laps inside the top 15 was because he and the team had a propensity to make mistakes in the pits that cost them a lap in the middle portion of several races.

Harvick spent a sixth-best 87.7 percent of the time on the lead lap for the season. Logano led this category with 90.5 percent.

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Active Cup wins list after 2018

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The 70th season of Cup racing was put to bed last weekend as Joey Logano won the season finale and the championship.

Over 36 races, the series saw 12 drivers win at least one race.

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch combined to win 16 races at eight each.

Chase Elliott and Erik Jones each won their first career Cup races.

Here’s a look at how the active driver wins list looks after the season.

This list is made up of drivers who started in the season finale, including Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray, who likely made their last or next-to-last Cup starts.

Kasey Kahne missed the final 11 races of the season, as issues with hydration cut his season and career short. He finished with 18 career victories.

Trevor Bayne made 21 starts in a part-time capacity, sharing the No. 6 Ford with Kenseth. His only Cup win remains the 2011 Daytona 500.

1. Jimmie Johnson – 83 wins (Winless in last 59 starts)
2. Kyle Busch – 51 wins (Eight wins in 2018 tied career-best)
3. Kevin Harvick – 45 wins (Eight wins in 2018 is a career-best by three)
4. Matt Kenseth – 39 wins (Winless in 15 starts in 2018)
5. Denny Hamlin – 31 wins (Went winless for the first time in 13 full-time Cup seasons)
6. Kurt Busch – 30 wins (One win in 2018; Has won at least once in last five seasons)
7. Brad Keselowski – 27 wins (Three wins in 2018; Has won at least one race in last eight seasons.)
8. Joey Logano – 21 wins (Three wins in 2018; Has won at least one race in last seven seasons)
9. Martin Truex Jr. – 19 wins (Four wins in 2018; 17 wins in the last four seasons)
10. Ryan Newman – 18 wins (Winless in last 68 starts)
11. Clint Bowyer – 10 wins (Two wins in 2018; Victory at Martinsville in March ended a 190-race winless streak)
12. Jamie McMurray – 7 wins (Has gone winless since 2013)
13. Kyle Larson – 5 wins (Went winless this season)
14. Chase Elliott – 3 wins (Earned all three wins in an 11-race stretch this season)
15. Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., David Ragan – 2 wins
20. Erik Jones, AJ Allmendinger, Chris Buescher, Regan Smith, Paul Menard – 1 win

Look back at 2018 season through photos

Photo: Dustin Long
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With the completion of the season, I often go back and look at the photos I’ve taken on my phone and reflect upon the special pictures.

Here are 10 photos I took that stood out to me as I looked back upon the 2018 season.

 

For those who question if Paul Menard smiles. He does. Here he is doing an interview with NBC Sports during media day in January

 

Clint Bowyer with son Cash in the media center after Bowyer ended a 190-race winless streak by winning that event in March.

 

This is among my favorite pictures just for the girl’s reaction at getting Kyle Busch‘s autograph as he headed to the drivers meeting at Bristol in April. Busch would go on to win that race.

 

Michael Riggs, shock specialist for Bubba Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports team, sets the scales for the team at Bristol in August. Another one of my favorites in how it shows the work of a crew member that most people don’t see.

 

NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood sits on the pit wall during the Southern 500 as William Byron races by in a Jeff Gordon Rainbow Warriors paint scheme. So much history in this picture.

 

Garrett Smithley hugs Ross Chastain in Victory Lane after Chastain won the Las Vegas Xfinity race in September for Chip Ganassi Racing.

 

Jimmie Johnson played a joke on Martin Truex Jr.’s team at Dover, a week after Johnson’s contact spun Truex in the final chicane and cost Truex the win at the Charlotte Roval.

Johnson was allowed in the Dover garage after it closed and put about a dozen children’s bikes on the lift gate of Furniture Row Racing’s hauler.

“Cole (Pearn) made a comment to me at the end of last weekend when we were leaving the track all in good fun,” Johnson said at Dover. “I saw some of his crew guys when I came back from a bike ride on Friday, and one of them grabbed my bike and said, ‘Oh, hey, is this my nice, new bike that Cole was talking about?’ ”

“So, as I shared that story with my team, the ideas started flowing, and we … sent my bus driver off to Walmart where they had some pre-assembled bikes and had some fun with it.”

 

Aric Almirola after he failed to win the Dover playoff race in October. Not much else needs to be said.

 

David Gilliland, who won the pole for the Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway in October, holds a puppy his family adopted earlier that week.

 

Ray Gallahan, fueler for Joey Logano‘s team, watches the team spray each other with champagne after Logano won the championship. It was Gallahan’s last race going over the wall. He sat back to take it all in and to avoid be “sticky” from the champagne.