Almirola: It’s About Picking Up Where We Left Off

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, July 14 2017

Aric Almirola faced reporters on his first day back at a race track on Friday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

A re-invigorated and introspective Aric Almirola returned to the seat of the No. 43 Smithfield Ford Fusion Friday to begin preparations for his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race since suffering a severe back injury eight weeks ago.

“I am stoked. Really excited,” Almirola said during a media session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, site of Race No. 19 of the season on Sunday. “I got to get back in the car Tuesday in Charlotte so I was back on the racetrack then, but it’s always different when you come to race weekend and you go out there and are getting ready to compete.

“It felt really good to be back. It felt really nice to be able to walk through the garage and see all my peers and guys in the garage area. To have so many people that walk by and say, ‘Hey, welcome back!’ It certainly makes me feel good.”

Almirola suffered an acute compression fracture to his T5 vertebra in a grinding, multi-car accident at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway on May 13. The injury, which has a standard healing time of eight to 12 weeks, saw Almirola recover in eight weeks. Throughout the recovery process, Almirola underwent physical therapy, swam and tested in simulation and on-track environments.

A test at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday was the final hurdle in a multi-step process involving his doctors and NASCAR officials, allowing Almirola to return to the car fielded by NASCAR Hall of Famer “King” Richard Petty and business entrepreneur Andrew Murstein.

The “Petty Blue” No. 43 Smithfield Ford was driven by Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., Regan Smith and Billy Johnson in Almirola’s absence.

Almirola has experienced modest success at the 1.058-mile track in Loudon, N.H., where he has scored one top-five and two top-10 finishes. An edited transcript of Almirola’s media availability follows:

QUESTION: Is a short track oval and relatively short race the ideal situation to get your “sea legs” back?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “I think we didn’t script it that way. I think it’s a great place to come back but when we looked at the schedule it wasn’t like we decided that Loudon was the place. The doctors from the very beginning were very clear to me that 8-to-12 weeks at best was the time frame. It was more probably to be upwards of 16 weeks. I was concerned about the later return and so I was really diligent with my recovery and my rehab and all my therapy. To be able to come back right at eight weeks just so happened to be Loudon, New Hampshire. Of all the tracks you look at on the schedule this is certainly the one that has the least amount of loading as far as banking and speed is concerned. It’s a great racetrack for me to come back and knock the cobwebs off and not really put my spine through a lot of loading for a long period of time.

“I think Charlotte, Texas, Dover _ those kind of places would probably be a lot worse _ but I feel great. I ran a lot of laps at Charlotte. We were there for four hours. I was pretty much in the car a large majority of the time and I felt great inside the car. I don’t really foresee any issues. I might have some soreness after the race but I think that’s to be expected as far as my doctors are concerned.”

QUESTION: After practice, can you talk about the VTF on the track’s surface and what it will be like on Sunday?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “It certainly moved the typical racing lane around from what we see here. It’s been sort of a new racetrack so to speak. We typically run in that second lane off the yellow line and we usually dread getting up over that seam. If you look back at video of the races here, all the cars try to keep the right sides inside that seam. Now that third lane has the PJ1 in it and you see a lot of cars entering in that lane, straddling that seam and it certainly has throw everybody a new racetrack here. I think it’s going to change sort of the way we approach the racetrack and way we attack the corners.”

QUESTON: How do you feel about the drivers who sat in your No. 43 car while you were out, and how they performed?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “I think that’s a tough thing for anybody to get thrown into a seat that is not their race car. They’re trying to pitch in and do their part to be a relief driver. I was really happy and really grateful for the guys that stepped in _ Regan (Smith), Billy (Johnson) and Darrell (Wallace Jr.). To come and give their effort and their two-cents, it was really good for our race team also to kind of see. For the last almost six years now they’ve had one guy giving them feedback, at least on the No. 43 car. To have a few other guys get in the car and sort of give their two-cents and for a lot of their comments to match up with some of the things I have been saying about the car, at least for this year. That was really nice and I’m really thankful those guys were able to step in on a moment’s notice and do a good job.

“I talked a lot about it this week but the sport changes so fast. The setups, the cars, everyone continues to evolve and get faster and faster and faster. You can’t really just take eight weeks off, show up at the racetrack and go ride around. You have to go compete and try things. In a way it really opened the box for our team to go try some things. We sometimes get stuck in a rut and just do the things we have done and get in this little box we have lived in and don’t get much outside of that. To have some other drivers come in and not really have points or anything really on the line for those guys and sort of just go at it with an open mind, it was really good. I think (crew chief) Drew Blickensderfer and the guys on my team rallied together and made the cars better and better so that when I get back in the car we hit the ground running.”

QUESTION: What are your expectations for the remainder of this season?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “Just to honestly pick up where we left off. I thought before I wrecked at Kansas we were a top-15 car. We consistently ran there and finished ninth at Richmond, fourth at Talladega. I was really excited about Kansas. We had a really good run going at the beginning of the race and had some issue the mid-part of the race and then we wrecked. Even the middle part of the race when we got back around 20th I thought we had a good enough car to rally back. I think really, for us, it’s about picking back up where we left off.

“I would love to sit here and tell you we’re going to go out and win this weekend but we have to be realistic and understand where our cars are at. Right now it’s about getting back to a top-15, top-10 car. If we can do that we will put ourselves in position to strategize and maybe pull a win out. You can’t do that from running 20th. You can’t do that from running 22nd. A guy that is running 12 spots ahead of you is also going to gamble on fuel. You have to be running up-front to capitalize on opportunities like that.

“For the No. 43 team and all of us on the Smithfield Ford Fusion, it’s about getting the car to running up to where we can take those opportunities and gamble on two tires or not tires or fuel strategy to go and try to get us a win here to close the year.”

QUESTION: Watching the races on TV as a fan, an experience you weren’t used to, did anything jump out at you?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “I wish we had in-car cameras on every race car. Sitting at home watching on TV I thought the experience was rather eye-opening. Truth be known for the last six years I haven’t watched many Cup races on TV. To sit at home and have my tablets out and have lap times and scanners and everything going and watching the race and listening to the broadcast, it’s really informative. You can really get a lot from watching the race even though you aren’t there. It was a great way for me to keep up with what was going on with the team, what was going on with the changes during the race, pit stops and everything.

“From watching the broadcast, I thought it would be so cool to have cameras in all the race cars. When you see a guy win a race for his first time, how cool would that be to get his reaction inside the car with an in-car camera? When you see somebody having trouble, to be able to pan to their in-car camera and see their reaction and frustration? I feel like from watching at home, that’s one thing I wish we could get _ more in-car cameras in all the race cars to show the fans what the driver is going through. Not only from just racing but their reactions and emotions in the moment.”

QUESTION: With NASCAR’s no-testing policy, do you feel like you got a little advantage having driven around Charlotte Motor Speedway this week?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “No, not really. They have a strict testing policy. We went there and had plenty of NASCAR personnel there and were very aware we weren’t testing parts and pieces, weren’t testing setups. We went there, made a couple laps, made a few small changes just to get the balance where I wanted it and then after that it was about making long runs to make sure my back could hold up to the loads and the G-forces during a fuel run. We didn’t really gain anything out of going there. It’s important for NASCAR to be able to do that.

“To let these guys, including myself and Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. when he came back, to go and test when you’re coming back from a medical injury because you don’t want to waste the team’s effort to fly all the way to Loudon, and me never having turned a lap on the racetrack. Even though I feel great and my MRI’s look good then I get out there and have a lot of pain and don’t know if I can do it, that would really set everything back and really screw the race team out of that whole weekend because now you would be trying to change seats and put another driver in who wasn’t planning on being there. It was great for NASCAR to allow us to go and run. I ran close to 100 laps and had no pain. It was easy for the doctors to say you were good to go.”

QUESTION: You were quite vocal about photographs of you taken in the aftermath of the wreck at Kansas Speedway. What came of that? Did you have any discussion with NASCAR?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “Yeah, I was involved with NASCAR on talking about it. Really, here is the deal. I think every photographer can appreciate this or understand this. There is no photographer allowed in the infield care center. That’s a private area for the doctors to work on the driver. No photographer in their right mind would just bust up in the infield care center and start taking pictures of a driver in there.

“Now, out on the racetrack obviously I’m out in a public setting but I was really in a mobile infield care center. There were doctors and track safety crew and a lot of people working on me to immobilize my spine and get out of the car and I was in a very vulnerable position. I felt like the photographers didn’t really respect that privacy. I understand they’re trying to go in there and snap that photo. I feel like it was up to NASCAR to help with that and help keep the perimeter back. So we talked about that and have had a lot of discussion. I think they are now aware and I don’t think it will happen again.”

QUESTION: With the Modified cars running here and the Hoosier rubber they lay down on the track…does that actually change conditions for the Cup guys on Goodyear tires?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “Yeah, it always changes. Just today the Modified cars were out there for an hour and a-half and then we rolled out for practice this morning. The track changes as that Hoosier rubber wears off and we put our own rubber down. It‘s nothing new. It’s the same thing that has been happening every time we come to New Hampshire for as long as I can remember. Probably longer than Ryan Newman has been coming here, which is a long time. It’s not different though. We always show up and there is a Modified race and different rubber on the racetrack and I don’t think that’s a big deal for us.”

QUESTION: Do you feel 100 percent after shaking down the car here?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “I do, I really do. I feel great. I feel like I did pre-crash. I think based on the word that I have gotten from the doctors, I went again yesterday morning to Charlotte Medical Center to get tested. They looked at everything and everything looks great. I have no concern based on their recommendation that I can get back in the race car. Physically I feel great. There are some muscles that after the race on Sunday might be a little sore or tired just from being out of the race car for two months. That will come back. Even when you start out the year after taking the winter off there are muscles that are sore. When you get back in the car week after week for a few weeks it gets back to normal.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, July 14 2017
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