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Flat Spot On: Almirola Brings Home Bacon for SHR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 15 2018

Aric Almirola finally got to stand on the roof of a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Aric Almirola made it to Victory Lane at last. A guy who used to watch Jimmie Johnson’s kids at the motor home, who once helped keep Richard Petty Motorsports in business by winning a rain-shortened race at Daytona, the Cuban-American who replaced the Great Female Experiment known as Danica Patrick, and yes, the same guy who got crashed while leading this year’s Daytona 500 two corners from the finish. That guy. He won at Talladega.

Thank the racing gods for that. It was a snoozer up until the overtime switcheroo. The Stewart-Haas Racing Fords took over from the beginning and made it a four-car pack at the front for the majority of the event. Again, it looked like Almirola, who took the No. 10 entries previously driven by Patrick, was out of luck, the fourth of the four dominant Fords on this day.

It was not quite like four horsemen outlined against a gray November sky. It was more like four fast-ass Fords hunkered down under a cerulean blue October sky.

Funny thing. Drafting at the rear of this day’s A-train meant Almirola had the fuel necessary to make it to the finish first in overtime after Kevin Harvick pitted before it even started, longtime race leader Kurt Busch ran out early and Clint Bowyer’s Fusion choked on too much air versus fuel. Here came redemption for a driver who has paid his dues, including a broken back in Kansas last year in the

The four drivers of Stewart-Haas Racing showed what team work is all about at Talladega. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

spring race. That one was like getting hit from behind at a stoplight. This week, Almirola returns to Kansas guaranteed to get to the Round of Eight after winning on the plains of Alabama.

Coming into the second race of the second round of the playoffs, Almirola was asking himself questions like, “Why do I keep losing?” and “Am I good enough to win?” Given that the first victory was a pit strategy call in a rain-shortened race, this was like the first career win for a guy who will be rolling like the tide out of Alabama. Next thing you know, a Cuban-American from South Florida may be in the finals among the palms in Florida at Homestead.

Will it be an all Stewart-Haas final down there in Florida, too, just like the least exciting race at Talladega since Mark Martin won a rain-postponed race with just two cautions back in, ahem, the good ol’ days. (At least it was over quickly with an average speed of 178.905 mph on that day. On this day, the average was 153.707 mph thanks to the automatic cautions for the stages.)

Martin, of course, was once sponsored by Viagra, one of the all-time great sponsor names along with Sunday’s winner – the Bacon for Life Ford brought to you by the nearest package of life-shortening breakfast food.

This one was extended by the “Little One”, a five-car incident in Turn 4 that brought out the yellow with one to go. The Creek Indian curse was working again on the plot of land that has seen its share of strange events.

Look for Kyle Busch to break up a Stewart-Haas party in Homestead given that he and Ford man Harvick have combined for 14 wins with five races to go and a ton of playoff bonus points. Martin Truex, Jr. or Brad Keselowski remain candidates along with Chase Elliott, the winner last week. Suddenly, Almirola now is in the championship conversation after ending up in a dead heat with his old championship buddy Johnson in Charlotte but advancing in the playoffs on a tie breaker.

Alas, the inability of “Chase from the Other Place” failed to live up to the reputation of his awesome dad Bill at Talladega shows how much things can change from week to week. Elliott the younger’s Chevy Camaro was a high-lane brick throughout while the Fords of Stewart-Haas were a runaway streak, turning the low groove into a private frolic.

How they do it? In a Talladega tradition, they crab-walked down the straights with the greenhouses blocking the air to the rear spoilers. That made ’em slicker through the air. It was reminiscent of team owner Tony Stewart’s cars when he drove for Joe Gibbs Racing in cars with the rear window re-arranged from “stock” to achieve better results. (Stay tuned for a possible post mortem from NASCAR R&D after a more careful inspection.)

The way things went, the Stewart-Haas plan to advance all its drivers to the next round of the playoffs could not have worked better. Harvick leads the points, Kurt Busch, who led 108 of 188 laps is fourth, Almirola is fifth (with an automatic advancement) and Bowyer, who managed to draft home in second, holds sixth place.

For those who thought team owner Stewart couldn’t manage himself well enough to manage a team (see pizza and beer binges, injuries in sprint cars, world record helmet tosses, etc.), he’s proven to be an outstanding leader. He was seen in deep conversation with Almirola before the race, counseling him to breathe easy after a sure win turned into a loss last week at Dover.

On some days, boring races at Talladega are enlivened by the Big One followed by a fabulous last-lap battle that encourages one to forget about the foregoing mayhem. On this day, the drudgery of watching the Monster Energy Ford gave way to the Bacon for Life vehicle. One of the sport’s most deserving drivers ended up in the right place at the right time. Sure, it was lucky and, OK, it was a fuel mileage victory. Nobody mentioned that in the post-race discussion. Instead, there were the career comes good line of questioning to Almirola, now in his seventh full season after working his way up from the Camping World Truck Series (two wins) and Xfinity Series (three wins).

“I knew I was going to be given this opportunity to have fast race cars,” said Almirola of his transition from RPM to replacing Patrick at Stewart-Haas. “I knew if we did the things that we needed to do, we brought cars capable of running up front, if I pulled my weight, we would have opportunities to win.”

“That’s been one of the most frustrating things for me,” he continued. “To watch all my team mates win races, and for me to get close so many times, not win.  I feel like I was letting our team down and our organization down because they kept giving me fast racecars week after week after week and we weren’t able to win. Today is gratifying.  Today I feel like I finally gave Stewart-Haas Racing and all the guys on the Smithfield team what they deserved.”

Yep. This one brought home the bacon.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 15 2018
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