Johnny Klausmeier

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

2018 Cup Season in Review: Aric Almirola

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Kurt Busch

CREW CHIEF: Johnny Klausmeier

TEAM: Stewart-Haas Racing

POINTS: Fifth (Previous best 16th in 2014)

WINS: One (Talladega II; second career victory and first since 2014)

LAPS LED:  181 (Career-best; previous best 78 in 2012)

TOP 5s: Four (Career-best; previous best three in 2015 and 2017)

TOP 10s: 17 (Career best; previous best seven in 2014)

POLES: None

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Began season with top 15s in 14 of the first 16 races … Came within two corners of winning the Daytona 500 before getting spun out of the lead by Austin Dillon … Was never worse than 14th in the points standings during the regular season.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Entered the playoffs with only one bonus point based on a stage win at Chicagoland; added five bonus points with his Talladega win, but still trailed the eventual Championship 4 by nine or more points … Sustained crash damage in back-to-back races at the Charlotte Roval and Dover in the fall … Led 70 laps at Chicagoland before losing a lap late in the race to finish 25th … Led 42 laps at New Hampshire but failed to win and finished third.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019: Second year with Stewart-Haas will allow Almirola to develop more chemistry with the organization. All four of his top fives came in the second half of the season and he should be able to carry that momentum forward.

NASCAR America: Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott are among the ‘best of the rest’

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Much of the attention at Miami last weekend was focused on the Championship 4 as Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch battled for the Cup title.

There were points races throughout the field, however, and on Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America Parker Kligerman and Dale Jarrett highlighted several drivers who made up the “best of the rest”.

“For (Chase Elliott) it goes back to the fact of it was always about getting that first win,” Kligerman said. “Once he could mentally – and the team could mentally – convince themselves they could win, the floodgates would open and that’s what we saw.”

Aric Almirola had the same average finish (8.6) as Logano during the playoffs and that contributed to his fifth-place position in the points.

“If you look at the first half of the season compared to what they did in the playoffs, it’s astonishing,” Kligerman said. “And Johnny Klausmeier, his crew chief, told me once we start going back to these tracks the second time and as young team really figuring out what we needed, we started to click.”

Erik Jones, Ryan Newman and AJ Allmendinger were also mentioned as notable drivers at various points during the season.

For more, watch the video above.

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What drivers said after Cup playoff race at Phoenix

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Kyle Busch — Winner: “I’d like to think it gives us a lot (of momentum), but I don’t know – talk is cheap. We’ve got to be able to go out there and perform and just do what we need to do. Being able to do what we did here today was certainly beneficial. I didn’t think we were the best car, but we survived and we did what we needed to do today. It’s just about getting to next week and once we were locked in, it was ‘all bets are off and it’s time to go.’ … It’s awesome to celebrate like this and we were the first ones in the Richmond victory lane and we’re the first ones in the Phoenix victory lane and I called my shot a few months ago because they had the 48 on the map showing everyone where things are at and I said, ‘That ain’t right, that’s going to be us.’ I’m glad I could be a man of my word.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 2nd: “We definitely made the right call. It just didn’t quite work out. Man, it was close. I needed to pass (Aric Almirola) like a lap earlier and we were all racing for all we’ve got. It was close.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 4th: “I thought we were a seventh to sixth-place car and that’s what I thought we were yesterday too. (Crew chief) Johnny (Klausmeier) and all these guys fought their guts out and I fought my guts out inside the race car and gave it everything we had. We took a seventh or eighth-place car and the next thing you know we were in position to win the race. I’m just really thankful for this group and these guys on the Smithfield team are awesome. This is our first year working together. You look at all the teams we’re racing and they’ve got four, five, six, seven years working together, so what we’ve accomplished in one year is a hell of a lot, but right now all I can think about is being inside of Kyle down there in the new one and two and just not being able to get the power down to get up beside him. It’s bittersweet. It was a good day for us, but today we needed to win and we didn’t win.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 5th: “I felt (the tire) start to go down going into Turn 1 there and just slowed down to the point where I thought I could at least make it back to the pits and not hit the wall. It came at an OK time because it didn’t tear the car up. It never really drove as well after that, but we kept ourselves in position all day and there at the end it was just like with everybody wrecking and all over the place, we just needed to stay out of trouble and try to find a safe spot there.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 8th: “Yeah for sure, I’m proud of our American Ethanol E15 car and our team. It was a solid run all weekend. We had a top 10 car. That is what we had. We proved that. It kind of bit us, we pitted and the caution came out and that was… we had to really fight to get back that, but luckily the wrecks happened. It put us back in a pretty good position. We decided to stay out on old tires and fight them off to the end. That was a fun run for our team and our Camaro. We will work on that. That is two top 10’s in a row and I’m happy.”

William Byron — Finished 9th: “we haven’t had very good runs, to be honest, the whole year, but this run we kind of went a completely different direction with what we were doing and it seemed to pay off, and just kind of had a solid weekend other than qualifying. Got some damage there, but we were able to come back, I guess, and finish ninth, so I guess that’s decent, and going to Homestead next week.”

Bubba Wallace — Finished 10th: “We were up there and we had underdog speed in the top 15 three quarters through the race and I didn’t like having all those cautions. I did because it would give us a chance to fire back off, but once we got leveled out those guys could just drive right by us. We are still working on our speed. We are still making the most of it. It was nice to be able to survive, catch a couple of breaks, catch a lot of breaks actually. Just have luck on our side for once. It was great to have the Air Force on our car for Veteran’s Day and our Chevrolet was actually decent this time.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 12th: That was a really solid day for our Kroger ClickList team. We’ve been searching for some speed at ISM Raceway the last several years, and to be able to gain spots on pit road and track position was a huge advantage for us. That was probably the best Kroger ClickList car I’ve had here. I’m really proud of the whole team for being able to get us some solid finishes the last few weeks, and I’m looking forward to finishing out the season strong next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 13th: “We had an opportunity there and I think the (Erik Jones) got together there and going into the corner I got underneath and it looked like I got loose, I thought I got hit, but nobody was near me. I got loose and I chased it up the race track and (Kurt Busch) was right there. Then it looked like he hit the wall and I was up there and kind of pinched him and then hit the wall again. It was not going to be good. He kind of turned us then, but I can’t blame him, Kurt’s been fair to me in so many years of racing. I’ve never had one incident with him, he’s been as fair to me as anyone out there and I hate it for him because trust me, I was rooting for him – all of today I was rooting for (Busch) to be the guy that got in there. Ultimately we have to go out there to try to race to win and we were battling hard off the corner. Just ran out of real estate for sure.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 14th: “We didn’t have the greatest car, but we battled hard and we had a little bit of good fortune. Made good calls, good strategy and good adjustments on the car. We got it to where it was pretty decent. The short runs just really killed us today. It would take 40 or 50 laps for the car to come in and then a caution would come out. All in all, I’m just really proud of everybody, everybody back in Denver at the shop for continuing to bring good race cars and stay focused.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 16th: “It’s definitely probably the best run I’ve had here and I’m really proud of the guys. I made mistakes on pit road instead. It’s kind of a trick pit road now with curves and straights and I was just pushing it too hard. We were able to rebound. I wish we could have got that lucky dog a little bit sooner, but (Matt Kenseth) and I were racing hard for it and it was just a tough battle there. I’m glad to get a top 20 and get some momentum back going to Homestead.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 19th: “What a crazy day of highs and lows for our GEICO Military team. My Camaro ZL1 had a great balance through the start and middle of the race, I just needed a bit more drive through the corners. Then the battery problem hit us, and we had to switch out batteries during a caution. That could have potentially ended our day, but thankfully the voltage maintained instead of dropping. My balance wasn’t exactly where I needed it in the final stage of the race, but my team kept tweaking it to get it closer. Everyone’s hard work today earned us a top-20 finish. We came to Phoenix wanting to make the most of what we have left of the season, and I’d say that we capitalized on everything we had today.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 30th: “We had an uncontrolled tire early. I don’t know, I guess the computer told them it was an uncontrolled tire. It didn’t look uncontrolled to me, but the computer is probably a whole lot smarter than me. We kind of got off pit strategy trying to come back from that. We were going to be able to overcome it and have a decent day. It was just kind of odd. Some odd things going on and then they crashed in front of us and knocked the duct work out of it. Hendrick Motorsports builds great engines, this wasn’t an engine failure because of them, this was an engine failure because it had no duct work and it ran 350 degrees for 20 laps and it can only do that for so long.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 23rd: “Was speeding on pit road and ultimately that is what got us behind. You can’t come down pit road leading the race and speed and expect to race for a championship the next week. Just unfortunate and especially that late in the race. So, that was just my fault and really no excuse for it. So, we will try again next year.

Kurt Busch — Finished 32nd: Erik Jones was on my inside when we restarted and I just wanted to make sure I didn’t slip through the new (Turn) 1 and 2. If I could have been to somebody’s outside off two, then I thought we had a good shot of maintaining the lead and I just got cleaned out. I flat out got cleaned out. I thought it was the right decision on staying out. I’m not gonna look back on it. If the rule earlier in the race on the pit road of passing the pace car is black and white, I just need to get brushed up on my rulebook. I didn’t gain anything by doing what I did other than just digging from behind all day. It was a really good year for our Haas Automation Ford. Thanks to Monster Energy and everybody that put their talent into that 41 car. I just didn’t get the job done to get us to Homestead.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 33rd: “It looked like we just blew a tire there.  We were actually getting our Ford Fusion better and better throughout the race.  We had a great qualifying spot, but obviously didn’t feel like we were capable of running there, but we were definitely getting our car better and better.  I felt pretty competitive that last run and bummed that it ended that way.  I thought we were moving forward and passing some good cars, but, all in all, it just wasn’t meant to be today and we’ll go on to Homestead.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 34th: “I thought we were pretty good. We definitely made big gains here. We were running top five all day. They noticed some water in the pit box on that last stop and I had no water pressure. We took off on the restart and it was blowing up. We found that a lugnut went through the radiator, so it’s just pure luck. We finally have a decent run here and that happens. The good news is we made good gains here, so that’s something to look forward to.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 35th: “I guess we cut a left-rear tire down. I don’t know if it’s a product of being able to get down on the back straightaway off the race track like that. At the end of the day it’s pretty unique. We travel all across the country running on race tracks that we race on the race track and this one we spend more time off of it. It’s fun to be able to do that, but I don’t know. After I saw (Joey Logano) and then felt my left-rear go, maybe that was a product of that. We’ve run low air on these short tracks like this on our left sides and maybe that was it. It’s just kind of the way our Playoffs are going. It’s frustrating. We’ve had a great year getting to where we were part of this Playoff situation and being in contention to be able to run for a championship. There’s a lot of pride with (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) and all the guys on the 14 car. It’s been a lot of fun to go to battle each and every week all across the country with these guys. Stewart-Haas, I can’t say enough about the job the men and women have done at Stewart Haas getting all four cars in the playoffs and then obviously winning and being in victory lane, and everything Ford and everybody involved has done for us. I’m proud of our season, bummed for our day. It’s always fun to come out here to Phoenix. It’s a hell of a crowd today, appreciate everybody coming out. Unfortunately, we were a caution. You never want to be a caution.”

Joey Logano — Finished 37th: “The left-rear tire went flat. I don’t really know why. It just kind of came out of nowhere. We may have run something over, I don’t know. I went down on the flat a couple laps earlier to make a pass and I don’t know if it hit a little bit hard, maybe it knocked the fender into it, who knows what happened there, but she just went out. I tried to save it. I thought I had it saved, but by the time I got it straightened back out the rest of the tires were flat because I had them flat-spotted. That’s what it is. We’ll move on. We’re locked into Miami, so it doesn’t really matter, so we’ll keep our heads high.”

 

 

Aric Almirola laments lost opportunity at Dover win

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DOVER, Del. — Aric Almirola stood against his car after he parked it on pit road Sunday and bowed his head.

When he looked up, he saw Chase Elliott drive into Victory Lane Sunday at Dover International Speedway. Moments later, Almriola saw Elliott’s celebration on a nearby video screen.

Then Almirola gazed back down at the ground.

“We’ve had so many opportunities and been so close and had the car to win and been in position,” Almirola said. “It just seems to not come through. I don’t know.

“Frustrated. Mad. Angry.”

Almirola was seven laps from winning his second career Cup race when a caution for Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer’s incident brought out the caution.

Then the decision became if to pit.

Almirola gave up his lead to do so. Not everybody joined him. Elliott, who was third, stayed out. Brad Keselowski, who was fourth, stayed out and restarted alongside Elliott on the front row. Martin Truex Jr., who was ninth, also didn’t pit and restarted third.

“That’s one of the situations where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Almirola said of crew chief Johnny Klausmeier’s decision to pit. “I feel like Johnny made the right call. We had a great car, it was really firing off on the restarts really fast and to come get four tires and be on offense; we’ve talked about that a lot this year about putting ourselves in situations to be on offense and we were. We put ourselves in position and it didn’t work out.”

Almirola restarted sixth. Trouble ensued shortly after the green waved.

Almirola bounced off the backstretch wall and hit Keselowski, triggering a crash that collected four other playoff drivers.

“I tried to at least go to where they weren’t, the top,” said Almirola, who led 64 laps, second only to teammate Kevin Harvick‘s 286 laps led. “(Hamlin) moved up to block me, and I just got really tight off of (Turn) 2. I bounced off the fence and got into Brad and we tore up a bunch of race cars on the back straightaway. I hate that for everybody that was involved. Kind of killed our day, too.

“I feel like we should be over there in Victory Lane celebrating and we’re not.”

Almirola finished 13th. Instead of qualifying for the next round and not having to worry about how he finishes next week at Talladega Superspeedway, Almirola is ninth in the standings. He trails Ryan Blaney by 10 points for the final transfer spot.

But that didn’t matter to Almirola as much immediately after the race as Elliott celebrated his second career Cup win.

“I want that for our team,” Almirola said. “I want that for our sponsors. I want to go to Victory Lane. That’s what I get paid to do, to try to win races. I’m frustrated that’s not us over there. That’s a hard one to swallow.

“That one is going to be a tough one.”

What drivers said after Phoenix race

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Kevin Harvick – Winner: “I’ve been mad as all get out because this team does a great job. This organization does a great job, and we’ve got fast race cars. And to take that away from those guys just really pissed me off last week. To come here to a racetrack that is so good for us is a lot of fun, and everyone was just determined this week, and we just wanted to just go stomp them. We didn’t stomp them, but we won. That’s all that really matters. Just proud of this team. Put a fire in our belly. What a badass team right there!”

Kyle Busch – Finished 2nd: “Today wasn’t easy, and I wouldn’t say any day is ever easy, but today was definitely just a bit harder than other days. It’s just so much physicality out there to make sure you’re right on top of the edge and flirting with it a lot during the race and try to chase down (Kevin Harvick). I think if roles were reversed there on that final pit stop, I don’t think (Harvick) would have got to us. I think our cars were evenly matched, and I thought we were right there with him. His car definitely turned the center a little bit better all throughout the day, and I know when he was racing with (Denny Hamlin) there, he was getting his stuff burned up pretty bad, and he was getting held up. I was just thankful that I got out there and got clear and was able to make some ground there on those guys and then before that green-flag pit stop.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 3rd: “Yeah, we had a good car. It was solid, you know? Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) made a good call there at the end, and we had a good pit stop there to get into the lead, and I just felt like I needed a little bit of drive there to put the power down in front of (winner Kevin Harvick). I had a pretty good turn those last two runs and before that I wasn’t turning good enough and too good of forward bite. So, he was definitely the car to beat, and it felt like there were a lot of laps left. I tried my best to hold him off as long as I could, but I felt like him and Kyle (Busch) had just a little bit on us. We’ll go to work and try to get better for California.”

DENNY HAMLIN – Finished 4th: “Just lacked a little speed honestly. Once we got the rear of the car hooked up there in the middle part of the race after the pit road miscue, the car took off and ran extremely well. Once we started to lose rear grip, that’s when those guys started to run us back down. We got a good baseline there to come back here in November in the playoff race, and we’ll build on that and come back. We’re running well, we’re leading laps, and we’re doing some things that are good. We just need a little bit. Obviously, I want to be a little faster and a little more consistent and eliminate some mistakes we’re making on pit road.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Finished 5th: “Just a solid day for us, not a great day and not what we were hoping for. There were times in the race where we were really good and just lost some track position there with about 100 or 80 to go. We had one run that went really long that we got really bad on, but overall today we were pretty close. We just lost a little there and felt like we could have run second or third maybe – one run we were as good as anyone, just couldn’t get perfect all day.”

Clint Bowyer – Finished 6th: “It was a solid day. We just have to get better as a team. I buried us a little bit in qualifying. It was a good run for us. A good run for Stewart-Haas Racing. We weren’t very good here last year. We sucked as a matter of fact, so that is a breath of fresh air after stubbing our toe last week. Having a good run today is definitely some positive mojo going.” 

Aric Almirola – Finished 7th: “We just keep plugging away. Johnny (Klausmeier, crew chief) and the guys made a lot of good adjustments on the car throughout the day. We started off okay and then we started dialing ourselves out the first few stops. We got some track position there with that two-tire call and got our Smithfield Ford Fusion up front, and it really liked the clean air. Our car got a lot better up there. I am proud of everybody. We just keep building on it. Top-10 ‘em to death. Just keep scoring points and doing what we do.”

DANIEL SUÁREZ – Finished 8th: “We didn’t have a winning car, but we had a good, solid top-10 car all race long. We made a couple of mistakes there with adjustments and on pit road, but we were able to overcome. Those mistakes were early in the race that we were able to overcome. I am just excited. We really needed something like this. We have had fast race cars and have had some issues and bad luck and stuff like that. Finally we were able to make it work.”

Erik Jones – Finished 9th: “It was kind of a struggle all day. The SportClips Camry fired off really tight, and we had to fight all day to get it back to the balance we were looking for. We got it close there at the end. We were finally getting where we needed to be and came in sixth on the pit stop and got some damage on pit road. We had to go to the back, and it just went green until the end. It was nice to be able to get back to ninth to get a top 10, but it would have been nice to race up there in the top five. We’ll keep working at it. We just have to keep working on some stuff and some adjustments we make overnight and fire off these races a little bit closer. We’ll keep working that way and come out strong for the next one.”

Kurt Busch – Finished 10th: “The car responded well to my steering and gas inputs. I was a little slow on restarts, but I love being able to lean on the right-rear tire and make passes later in the run. Our strategy unfolded the best it could have to win Stage 2 and get back in the top 10. We just didn’t run the same lap times we did at the end as we did at the beginning of the race, but all in all, it was a good day.”

Ryan Newman – Finished 11th: “The one thing we struggled to do last season was to lead laps and now we’ve led in two races so far. It’s great to see the RCR Chevys up front. Our biggest challenge was maintaining track position, and it is pretty evident what we need to work on, and I’m sure we’ll get it resolved. I’m just proud to have contended because the more laps we lead will soon convert into wins.”

William Byron – Finished 12th: “I think the two tires worked for us, just the way our car was handling. We were really tight all day, and we couldn’t really get that out of it. But the middle stage of the race, we started running closer to the top 10, ninth or 10th I think, and that was the perfect call at the time. I was a little, I guess, not sure if it was going to work out just because we had done it already one time. But it worked out. We could kind of keep some clean air, and I think that was a net gain for sure.”

Alex Bowman – Finished 13th: “Yeah, it was a frustrating day. I don’t know if we had brake fans or not because we didn’t have any other fans, everything inside the car quit. My helmet blower quit, everything quit. It was hot. I burnt my feet pretty good, but the race car wasn’t bad. Just my trackbar quit when everything else quit, so I had no adjustment all day, too. We overcame a lot. I sped on pit road, when I swerved to miss some debris. Had some bad pit stops and rebounded from it. We will take 13th for as rough as today was.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 14th: “We certainly made the car better throughout the course of the weekend. We got up to eighth and then had some pit strategy kind of work against us and fell back into the teens again, and it’s just so stinking hard to pass. I think if we could have stayed up there in that top 10 where we were, we would have finished there, but once we got mired back and had to start all over again, it was just a long grind.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 18th: “(The spin) definitely wasn’t a tire going down. We’ve had, all weekend, like a wheel hop, tire chatter, some issue like that. It’s hard to kind of tell what it is. I feel like it just starts as soon as I get to the brakes and turn the wheel, and then I just start wheel hopping. I fought it all day yesterday and was hoping that we could fix it. We still had the issue in the race. It was fairly annoying having the tires bounce around underneath you, but hopefully we will figure out what was going on all weekend with our setup and come back later in the year better.”

Kasey Kahne – Finished 24th: “I was on the loose side the whole race.  So, that made it a little tough to do anything on restart, usually we would get taken advantage of, but it would actually come in alright, just kind of stalled out.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 30th: “Our GEICO Camaro ZL1 fired off great to start the race because we were tight, and that worked well for us on the green racetrack. Once the track started to rubber up and change, we were too tight. I tagged the wall there in the middle of the first stage and had body damage to the right rear of the car that we needed to fix. We worked on the damage on every stop after that until the fender was clear, and my team kept adjusting the car to keep my balance in a good spot throughout the race. We had some good moments today in being able to muscle around the cars in front of us and using strategy at the end of Stage 2 to pick up our first stage points of the season. We know that we need to be in a position each week to get more of those points because they are so critical, and we’re going to get there. I have no doubt about this team’s ability and the fight that we’ll put up to keep growing and improving.”

Paul Menard – Finished 36th: “I think the tire went down. The right-rear tire blew. Not sure what caused it (Goodyear later said it was a melted bead on the right-rear tire). Maybe bead temp or something. It is a disappointing day for sure. We made some good adjustments early and I thought we would be OK. I had a hard time getting in the corner that last run and we started backing up, then something happened to the tire.”