By Ryan Isley
Let’s play a game.
I will give you 10 chances to guess which driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is the only one to finish in the top-15 in each of the season’s first six races.
Could you do it?
Here we go…
It isn’t Kevin Harvick, even though he has three wins and four top-5s.
It isn’t Martin Truex Jr, but the reigning series champion has finished in the top-5 in each of the last five races.
It isn’t Kyle Busch, who has three seconds and a third in the last four races.
It isn’t Joey Logano, although he has five finishes in the top-7.
It isn’t Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch or Ryan Blaney.
Hell, 7-time series champion Jimmie Johnson isn’t even in the discussion.
The only driver to finish in the top-15 of all six MENCS races this season is Aric Almirola. Yes, the same Aric Almirola who replaced Danica Patrick in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Ford. And yes, it is the same car that never had more than five top-15 finishes in an entire season with Patrick behind the wheel.
It’s amazing what happens when you forgo the publicity stunt and actually put a qualified driver in the seat.
It was announced last September that the No. 10 car would have a new sponsorship and driver for the 2018 season, meaning Patrick’s run in the car would come to an end after five full-time seasons. Then in November, it was announced that the new driver of the car would be Almirola, who was set to leave Richard Petty Racing after six seasons in the MENCS.
Almirola almost gave Stewart-Haas Racing an immediate payoff. He was leading the final lap of the 2018 Daytona 500 before eventually finishing 11th after a wreck with winner Austin Dillon. The wreck came after Almirola tried to block Dillon and the two locked bumpers, pushing Almirola into the wall.
Instead of being upset and allowing the finish to bother him, Almirola went out and finished 13th at Atlanta and then had his first top-10 of the season the next week at Las Vegas. He backed that up with what has been his best finish so far in 2018, a 7th-place finish at Phoenix. He has finished 12th and 14th the last two races at Fontana and Martinsville, making him 6-for-6 in top-15 finishes so far.
While some might be surprised that Almirola has been able to consistently finish in the top-15 this season, it isn’t the only time he has shown promise in his career.
Almirola took over the ride at Stewart-Haas after having three top-5s and six top-10 finishes last season in the No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola ended the season strong, finishing 15th or better in five of the last six races and didn’t have a finish below 18th in the last six.
If not for a horrific injury, Almirola just may have made the playoffs in 2017. A crash at Kansas Speedway, ironically involving Patrick, resulted in a compression fracture in Almirola’s T5 vertebrae. The injury forced Almirola to miss seven races, meaning he would only have a chance to make the playoffs with a win and a waiver from NASCAR. Unfortunately for Almirola, the road back was a rough one and he failed to finish in the top-10 in any of the next eight events before the playoff field was set.
It was quite a bounce back season in 2017 for Almirola, who struggled in 2016 with just one top-10 finish. That season had to be a letdown for Almirola, as he had started gaining some real momentum in the MENCS in 2014 and 2015. Even after missing the seven races and not making the playoffs, Almirola was getting back to the driver he showed he can be in 2014 and 2015 at Richard Petty Motorsports.
At the 2014 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Almirola picked up his first (and only to this point) MENCS win. That victory propelled him to the 2014 playoffs, where he finished the season 16th. The win was nice, but Almirola also had two top-5s and a career-high (so far) seven top-10s. This came just one season after collecting six top-10s.
Almirola kept it going in 2015, finishing with three top-5s and six top-10s. He also had a career-high 25 lead lap finishes in 2015. He missed the playoffs by just one spot, finishing fourth in the final race before the playoffs at Richmond International Raceway. A win would have given him a place in the playoffs.
One of the reasons Almirola got his chance in NASCAR’s premier series was the success he had shown in the Xfinity Series in 2011 when he drove the No. 88 for JR Motorsports to a 4th-place finish in the final standings. In his only season as a full-time driver in the Xfinity Series, Almirola had seven top-5s and 18 top-10s in 34 races. Both of those stats ranked third among Xfinity Series regulars in 2011, trailing just series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Elliott Sadler.
He jumped to the MENCS with Richard Petty Motorsports a year later in 2012, finishing with one top-5 and four top-10s. He finished the season on a high note, finishing 16th or better in five of the last six races and in the top-20 in the eight races that made up the 10-race playoff, despite not being in the playoffs.
While the success may not be quite so obvious to some when it comes to what Almirola has done in the MENCS, it’s important to note that he has done it on a team that at most had two drivers in a season, unlike teams such as Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, etc. And now that Almirola has joined a bigger team with better equipment and more money than what he has previously had in the MENCS, he has shown the consistency to finish races better than his predecessor in the car.
Part of the reason he has flown under the radar this season is because of that bigger team.
Two of the other drivers in the Stewart-Haas stable have been one of the bigger stories of the NASCAR season so far. Harvick won three races in a row and Bowyer broke a 190-race winless streak last week at Martinsville. Add in that the other driver for Stewart-Haas is former MENCS champion Kurt Busch and it is easy to overlook the driver who has the fewest accomplishments in the Stewart-Haas garage.
But if Almirola keeps up what he has been doing so far in 2018, people will be talking about him soon enough.