In three seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series, Aric Almirola has proven his ability to be a contender for the playoffs. He has also shown an affinity for strong runs, including wins, at restrictor plate tracks.
Almirola’s performances have earned him the loyalty of primary sponsor Smithfield. But the 2021 season could be a crucial one in determining the future of the Almirola/SHR/Smithfield relationship.
A Look Back
Almirola’s best season in the Cup Series to date is 2018, his first year at SHR. Taking over a No. 10 team that faced a lot of question marks in terms of performance capabilities, Almirola performed admirably. Steady, workman-like results through the regular season earned him a playoff spot, and Almirola rode that momentum to a win at Talladega Superspeedway, the second Cup victory of his career. He advanced to the round of eight and finished fifth in points, contributing to the best season SHR has ever enjoyed as an organization overall.
The next season was a step back. Almirola was unable to reach victory lane, and a weak start to the playoffs led to his elimination in the round of 16. During the offseason, Mike Bugarewicz replaced Johnny Klausmeier as the No. 10 team’s crew chief.
The pairing with Bugarewicz helped Almirola improve in 2020. Their best achievement was a string of five consecutive top-five finishes during the summer, followed by four more races that resulted in top 10s. Those strong runs virtually guaranteed Almirola a spot in the postseason. However, the No. 10 team could not maintain its speed into the playoffs, and a difficult Round of 12 knocked Almirola out of title contention.
Superspeedways are traditionally Almirola’s best tracks. Talladega in particular is one place where he can usually count on a good run. Up until last year’s fall race at Talladega, Almirola enjoyed a streak of eight consecutive top 10s at the Alabama track. While other drivers may fear the chaos and unpredictability that Talladega regularly dishes out, races there are opportunities for Almirola to feast.
In fact, since he began racing with StHR, Almirola has experienced some success at other big, fast tracks. In six starts in the No. 10 car at Pocono Raceway, Almirola has four top 10s, including two top fives last year. Texas Motor Speedway is another venue where he has four top 10s in six SHR starts, and he has led at least one lap in the last four Texas races.
Do not sleep on Almirola at Phoenix Raceway, either. It may not fit the mold of a high-speed track where he usually excels, but Almirola has finished 13th or better in six of his last seven starts there.
Now that Almirola is established with SHR, is he capable of winning races regularly and becoming a true championship contender? Or is the type of performance that we’ve seen out of him the last three years his ceiling?
The 2021 season offers Almirola a good opportunity for his first multi-win campaign. Fellow veteran drivers like Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer have left SHR in recent years. Busch’s and Bowyer’s old rides will be filled this season by second-year driver Cole Custer and rookie Chase Briscoe. Only Almirola and Kevin Harvick remain as the SHR veterans. Harvick will obviously be SHR’s biggest championship threat, but Almirola is the only other driver on the team who could conceivably be ready to race for a title this year.
The No. 10 team would need to find a little more speed on the intermediate tracks, and it would not hurt it to be aggressive with late race strategy if Almirola has the checkered flag in sight. This is a team that should be in win now mode while it has the chance.
A positive season with a deep playoff run would help to secure Almirola’s future at SHR. Toward the end of last season, Smithfield and SHR reached an agreement to extend their current sponsorship contract, also ensuring that Almirola himself would return. However, neither Smithfield nor SHR disclosed the length of the new agreement. If the extension is only for one additional season, like Smithfield’s previous deal, the pressure will be back on Almirola to perform at a high level. Considering that Almirola and Smithfield are celebrating 10 years together, it is a position to which he is accustomed.
But if sponsorship and team stability are Almirola’s biggest strengths, the changing landscape of NASCAR will be his greatest obstacle. Road courses are not one of Almirola’s specialties, and he’ll face a Cup Series schedule full of them this season. However, a bigger problem is that he will be competing for playoff spots with drivers like Custer and Briscoe – fresh faces who have proven themselves capable of winning many races in NASCAR’s lower divisions, which is something that Almirola never quite mastered.
Suppose those drivers steal a few wins from the veterans, just like Custer did last year. Unless Almirola is able to get a win himself, his playoff hopes will start to look dicey. The No. 10 team may be able to earn good finishes almost anywhere, but it has had few outstanding performances together and only one victory in three years.
Neither Almirola nor his team have proven an ability to triumph in must-win situations. If some of the less experienced drivers emerge as contenders and win races, they could block Almirola from victory lane and the playoffs. That would be highly disappointing for the No. 10 team, but it’s not an impossible scenario.
At this point in his career, we know what to expect of Almirola. Chances are he’s not going to start dominating races and racking up wins like Harvick did last year. The No. 10 team will probably earn one win at most but finish well enough throughout the season to reach the playoffs. Once there, Almirola could repeat his 2018 performance and go as far as the Round of 8, but he will not be a serious championship contender.
That said, another steady season of good results and a playoff berth would still bolster Almirola’s relationship with Smithfield. SHR has no more prospects ready for the Cup Series in the near future, and having a reliable driver with solid sponsorship is nothing to scoff at.
If Almirola’s typical seasons have kept all parties happy thus far, there is no reason to think that any of them would be dissatisfied with the status quo.
Even if the No. 10 car never rolls into victory lane in 2021, Almirola is sure to bring value to SHR.