The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the site of one of the most surprising races of 2021, and the event’s winner desperately needs a repeat in 2022.
Aric Almirola won his lone race of the 2021 season when the series visited New Hampshire Motor Speedway a year ago. He led the final 20 laps and held off Christopher Bell to earn his fourth consecutive trip to the NASCAR Playoffs despite a dreadful season up until that point.
Nothing went right for Aric Almirola early in the 2021 season
Almirola entered that race 27th in the points standings with merely two top-10 finishes in a season that included five crashes, which resulted in four last-place finishes, through the first 13 races of the season.
It was easily Almirola’s worst season since he moved to the No. 10 car for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018. This was a driver who had finished fifth in the final points standings and narrowly missed the Championship 4 in 2018.
Almirola had finally arrived with a top-tier team at one of the largest organizations in the sport after six years in the famed but mostly nostalgic No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports.
He did put the No. 43 car in Victory Lane for the first time in 15 years when he collected a rain-shortened win in the July 2014 event at Daytona International Speedway. But he then led a combined six laps across the next three seasons, and the No. 43 car has not gone to Victory Lane since.
A move to Stewart-Haas Racing rejuvenated Almirola’s career
Almirola’s career improved rather significantly with his move to SHR. He qualified for the playoffs on points in his first year at SHR in 2018 and then won the playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway to advance into the Round of 8.
He followed his fifth-place season of 2018 with three more playoff appearances, although his New Hampshire win was the only reason he qualified last year, as his 19.9 average finishing position was his worst since 2016.
Almirola did not finish higher than 14th in the next dozen races before a pair of sixth-place results to finish the year at Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, respectively. It was far too little, too late for Almirola at that point, and he finished the season 15th in the points standings.
In the offseason, he announced that the 2022 campaign would be his last as a full-time driver, although he hedged a bit on that recently before a race at Road America.
Almirola’s 2022 season has been good but not spectacular
Almirola opened his farewell season with three straight finishes of sixth or better and was 10th in the points standings through the first 10 races of the season.
Unfortunately for Almirola, a deluge of different winners filled the first half of the season and took up valuable playoff spots because their wins automatically qualified them for the postseason.
Almirola is 12th in the points standings, which would typically qualify him for the playoffs. But 13 different winners through the first 19 events of the season have relegated him to 18th on the playoff grid, 42 points behind Bell in the 16th and final spot.
It is unlikely Almirola will accumulate enough points across the final seven regular-season races to catch Bell, assuming no other new winner comes along and takes one of the three remaining open playoff sports.
Almirola has only four career top-fives at any of the remaining tracks on the regular-season slate aside from New Hampshire and Daytona, where he has three each.
It’s great to have good numbers at Daytona since it is the cutoff race before the playoffs begin, but races there are always difficult to predict. Sure, Almirola has three top-fives and four top-10s at the historic superspeedway, but he has 17 finishes outside of the top 10 and nine of 21st or worse.
He has a 6.3 average finish, meanwhile, in his last three races at New Hampshire and has not finished lower than 11th in any of those events.
Plus, Ford has been particularly good at tracks similar to New Hampshire in the debut season of the new Next Gen car model. Almirola’s SHR teammate Chase Briscoe won the spring race at Phoenix that had five Ford drivers inside the top 10, and Ford driver Joey Logano won for Team Penske at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis in a race that featured three Fords in the top five.
Almirola finished 12th and fifth in those events at tracks similar to the flat, 1.058-mile layout of New Hampshire.
The Magic Mile is where Almirola salvaged his season a year ago. And he might need to conjure another round of wizardry Sunday to have a chance to compete for a championship as his (likely) final season comes to a close.
Stats courtesy of Racing Reference