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Almirola Out To Crash The Chase Party At Dover

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 28 2014

Aric Almirola and his team are in the mix this weekend at Dover. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

There, two weeks ago, was Aric Almirola in one of those queaze-inducing interview sessions. His heart laying on the oily infield pavement at Chicagoland Speedway, a microphone pointed at his head and moronic questions about how he felt being fired point blank.

Then came the headlines about Almirola being the “big loser” after his engine blew during the first race of the Sprint Cup playoffs; how his  would be a “short stay” at the Chase “party”, which this year, features an elimination format.

The assumption was that there was one less driver and team to talk about after the race at Chicagoland. One less team and driver to detract from Jimmie’s run to seven, Jeff Gordon’s return to the head table, Penske’s inauguration as the top team in Cup.

Except, not.

Almirola will start today’s third race of the 10-race Chase – and the last race before the 16-team field is cut to 12 – in last place, but not a distant last place. Thanks to a sixth-place finish last weekend in New Hampshire, and bits of trouble on the part of other Chasers in Loudon, Almirola and his Richard Petty Motorsports team will be in the blender at Dover.

And with abundant confidence.

“We’re 10 points out of 12th right now,” Almirola said during a teleconference with the media this week, “so basically I just have to finish 10 spots ahead of everybody that’s in front of me from 15th to 12th in points, which sounds easier than it really is, but I’m glad for our sake that we’re still in it.”

Almirola says the reasons confidence is high about making the cut and advancing to the second round of the Chase go beyond points. His history-dripping No. 43 Petty-blue cars are plain fast these days.

In three of the last four races, the 30-year-old Almirola has logged top-10 finishes. The only bad finish was the Chicagoland race when the engine blew and that race featured a good car. A car which was running sixth late in the race and appeared headed to a top-10 finish.

Almirola points to the late-season speed with understandable pride and with insistence that big things are happening at RPM.

“There’s a lot of newness to our race team,” the native of Tampa, Fla. said. “Trent (Owens, his first-year crew chief) and I have continually gotten better at working together throughout the year, and I think when we started the Chase we knew that it was go time, and all the guys on the team had to step up. We were working our guys more hours. We were bringing the best race cars we could to the race track. We spent extra time prepping our race cars to get them ready for the Chase. I think that’s been a big eye-opener for us and understanding what it takes to compete at this level.”

While understanding what it takes to compete in Cup, Almirola knows attaining that “what” can be problematic for lesser-funded teams.

“We know that all year long, but it’s hard to do that when you have a small race team,” Almirola said. “You wear your guys out so easy. We’re talking about a race team at Richard Petty Motorsports that has about 50 employees racing against the Penske and Hendrick and Gibbs teams that have 300 employees, so we have to be mindful of that throughout the season.

“We can’t just beat our guys down all year long and then expect them to perform when it comes September. We have to juggle that, but I feel like working with Trent – this is a stressful time in the Chase. All the guys on the team know the implications. Myself, Trent, the engineers, we all know what’s at stake, so to be able to show up to the race track, bring the cars we’ve been bringing to the race track and performing at the level we’ve been performing at has been really encouraging for me. This has been great for our race team to go through this together and regardless of what happens, I think we’re going to be a much better race team next year because of it.”

But this year is now. And another top-10 – perhaps mixed with some bad luck on a couple of the other bubble drivers – is a flat out necessity today.

Can do, he said.

“I don’t see any reason for us to not continue performing the way we have the last four weeks. I don’t see us falling off the wagon. It may happen, but I don’t think so. Dover is one of my favorite race tracks. I think we ran 12th there earlier this year, so if we can get a little bit better there it’s very reasonable to expect to go run in the top 10 there.”

And can do after that.

“Kansas is coming up,” he said. “I think we ran sixth or seventh there earlier this year and ran in the top five a lot during the race, so that’s gonna be a great race track for us. Charlotte, we finished 11th earlier this year and ran in the top 10 a lot in the race, and going to Talladega we won the last restrictor plate race so I have a lot of confidence going there. We’re gonna take the same car we won Daytona with that was really fast, so looking ahead at least to the next four weeks I feel really good. I feel confident, so we’ll see what happens. I can’t predict the future, but I feel confident and my race team feels confident that we can go these next seven weeks and finish out the year really strong and whatever happens happens.”

The heart that was splatted down onto the infield pavement at Chicagoland Speedway is clearly back to where it needs to be.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 28 2014
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