By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
“Hallelujah! A clean day!”
That was the immediate thought by Aric Almirola’s No. 10 pit crew as a clean yet frantic ending to their Dixie Vodka 400 resulted in a fifth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Finally, woo! Thank you boys! Just a nice clean day. I appreciate that,” Almirola replied over the radio.
The sigh of relief was a direct result of Almirola saving his tires, but trying to dodge lapped traffic and avoid letting the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Kyle Busch and Erik Jones steal one from him.
Before the battle towards fifth, Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang was quietly having a much needed strong night following a five-race skid, including a season-worst 33rd at Martinsville last Wednesday. Signs of Almirola’s consistency Sunday were validated by a fifth and 10th place stage finishes, collecting seven stage points in the progress.
Prior of making one last pit stop, Almirola was struggling to keep his Mustang from having a right front tire going down. The concern rose once his teammate Kevin Harvick made an unscheduled pit stop for a flat right rear tire.
Fortunately, Almirola didn’t have to endure the heartache as he brought his car to pit road and the quest for fifth was on. That in mind, the crew told him to stay calm and save his tires as best as possible.
Throughout the final run, Almirola was one of the fastest cars on the track. Most notably, four tenths quicker than sixth-place Jones. Later on, Busch popped into the fight with 10 laps remaining when he got by Jones, who suddenly regressed. Moments later, Jones made unscheduled pit stop due to a flat tire and finished 21st.
Therefore, the fight would come down to Almirola and Busch. The biggest challenge from Almirola wasn’t much saving tires to keep a blistering fast Busch from passing him, but lapped traffic.
It became a tremendous burden for the entire No. 10 team as Josh Bilicki and teammate Cole Custer made things difficult for Almirola. Worse when Custer and others lay over for Busch as the deficit was down to under a second with just three laps remaining.
Busch wasn’t able to catch Almirola as the final margin between fifth and sixth was 1.772 seconds. The hard work at Homestead resulted in Almirola’s first top-five since his runner-up finish at Texas last November and their best finish since the season resumed last month at Darlington.
“Man, we finally had a nice clean day today. We really needed that as a team. We haven’t raced a full race yet without having something go wrong,” Almirola on finally having an all-around positive race.
“This proves we have the speed we need to compete this season if we continue to run clean with no mistakes. Homestead is not an easy track to earn a top-five at either. To get our first of the season here shows we have a lot of potential.”
Almirola improved one position in the regular season standings as he’s now 13th in points, 24 points ahead of the cutoff going into the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the site of his last win 53 races ago. Live race coverage begins June 21 at 3 p.m. on FOX.