By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Pending who you ask among the NASCAR Cup Series playoff contenders, they’ll likely say Aric Almirola is the true dark horse contender for this year’s 10-race championship odyssey.
Who can blame them as Almirola has had a career year with a career-high five top-fives and 14 top-10s in just the regular season alone. Due to him being more consistency than last season, it was good enough for both Stewart-Haas Racing and long time sponsor Smithfield re-upping their deals for next season on Tuesday.
Almirola said that both Smithfield (his sponsor since 2012) and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz played a role into his tenure in the sport going past 2020 which has made him thankful to be around great folks that allows him to compete at a high level.
“I think my relationship with Buga and how well we’ve run certainly played a factor, not only with me having that opportunity again at Stewart-Haas Racing, but certainly with the sponsor,” Almirola on his contract extension. “They have certainly appreciated being a lot more a part of the broadcast, running up front, leading laps and being in contention to win races on a more regular basis, so all of that certainly played a factor.
“I’m just so grateful to continue to build on that relationship with Smithfield. They’ve been a great partner of mine for nine seasons now and next year is gonna be going on our 10th season together and I feel like that’s something to be said. There are very few driver-sponsor combinations that go that long in our sport and I think that’s a true testament to Smithfield and their commitment to our sport and their commitment to me, and then on the flip side just how hard I’ve worked to try and bring them value to their company in exchange for them sponsoring a race car that I get to drive.”
Although Almirola is excited for his fourth playoff appearance, he doesn’t care what anyone outside his team thinks.
During Thursday’s portion of NASCAR playoffs media day, Almirola said that his attitude will remain the same and that’s concentrating on his performance which they’re capable of doing. Dark horse contenders be damned.
“It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks and that’s an attitude that I’ve had for a long time,” said Almirola. “I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with Bugarewicz and the guys on my team.
“What anybody else thinks I really don’t care because only I and my race team really know what we’re capable of and areas where we need to improve and areas where we feel like we’re doing a good job.
“I am excited about the playoffs. I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”
A lot of the confident mindset from the 36-year-old comes from the strong chemistry he’s had with “Buga” in just their first season together.
Almirola best described the partnership as “his ying to his yang” where a simple working relationship has grown into a tremendous friendship outside of racing.
“Our relationship has obviously grown a lot. I’ve worked side-by-side with him in the shop and competition meetings and the garage area when he was a teammate, but now having him as my crew chief we’ve grown a lot, not only as crew chief-driver, but as friends,” Almirola on Bugarewicz. “We have a lot of similar interests. He enjoys cycling. I enjoy cycling, so through the pandemic we went on several bike rides together. His wife and kids come over to our house and had dinner together. We’ve built that sort of relationship, which has, I feel like, made an impact on how we perform.”
From a racing perspective, Almirola added that Bugarewicz has held him accountable for his performance and been challenged more than he’s ever been in his decade-plus career that could pay off during the playoffs. That’s in large part of “Buga’s” non-stop work to make the No. 10 Ford Mustang competitive rather than be labeled as dark horse contenders.
“He has challenged me in ways that I haven’t been challenged before just from the fact that he is probably the most intense crew chief that I’ve ever had. That guy, I don’t know when he sleeps. I know he does get some sleep. It’s not humanly possible to function with no sleep, so I know he sleeps sometimes, but I don’t know when. He’s always working,” said Almirola.
“He’s sending me emails at crazy hours at night. He’s just so intense and he pays attention to every single detail on the race car, every single detail on simulation. He’s on top of every single guy on our race team, making sure that they’re paying attention to every single detail. He’s just so intense and that makes me accountable and he holds me accountable, and I appreciate that.
“I know that he is a fiery competitor and I love that about him, and I feel like I am the yin to his yang because I’m a very fiery competitor, but I’m very even keel and don’t show a lot of emotion. I don’t yell and scream a lot. I’m pretty laid back, but I do car tremendously and I work really, really hard at it, so I appreciate that side of it from him.”
The 12th seeded driver will roll off 10th for this Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN). With that race being the kick-off race, Almirola described that to have a shot of snapping his near two-year winless streak, let alone make it past the first round, perfection is vital.
“You can’t go to Darlington and wipe the right side off of it and finish 29th. You can’t scrape the wall and have a fender cut down a tire and go two laps down during a green flag cycle,” said Almirola.
“You can’t afford those kind of mistakes, so you have to be mindful of that, and the same thing at Bristol. Both those places you typically run right on the wall, so there’s very little margin for error and that’s something that’s very mindful for me is that you’ve got to get 100 percent out of everything, but you can’t try and get 102 percent out of anything because that’s usually when mistakes happen.”