By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
After finishing fourth in the 2017 Daytona 500, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been leaving a lot to desire for Aric Almirola. Since Daytona, Almirola has had only one Top 15 finish as the series entered Richmond International Raceway for the Toyota Owners 400.
In the first practice, Almirola placed his No. 43 Smithfield Ford Fusion a disappointing 27th on the charts. Qualifying was not much better as Almirola missed moving on to round two, ending up 25th on the grid. In the final two practices, he was 26th and 20th on the charts.
From the drop of the green flag Almirola began to move forward. The progress was slow at first due to a quick caution for the spinning car of Erik Jones just four laps of the race.
Once the race got under way, Almirola began to show the true speed of his Richard Petty Motorsports car. By the end of Stage 1, he had climbed to 12th. However, being outside the Top 10, he did not gain any extra Championship points.
Stage 2 did not go nearly as well for Almirola as Stage 1 did. Although the stage was quiet for Almirola, he slipped from 12th back to 18th, far from the Top 10.
For most of the final stage of the race, Almirola was outside the Top 10. At one point, Almirola slid out of the Top 20 and fell a lap behind the leaders.
As the race neared the end, Almirola’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, made a strategy call and had Almirola take the wave around. Another quick caution allowed him to pit for fresh tires.
A caution with 20 laps to go left teams on different strategies with six staying out on track. Almirola pitted and restarted in 15th.
The difference in tires was more than some could handle. Cole Whitt, Kyle Larson, and others dropped through the field. Almirola pounced and picked off position after position. By the time the checkered flag waved, Amirola had climbed to ninth.
This is Almirola’s second Top 10 of the season, and the 28th of his career. He is 19th in the championship points standings, 209 points behind points leader Larson, and 12 points Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. who currently holds the cutoff position for the Playoffs.
Almirola was proud of the effort his team put forward,
“It was a solid day for us. I am really proud of everybody on the Smithfield Ford Fusion here. We had a good day. We needed that. We typically run well here. This is one of our better tracks. It is great to get a good solid finish here in Richmond, Virginia, Smithfield headquarters aren’t far away and we had a lot of friends and family of employees at the race. It was a solid top-10 and I am really proud of the effort today.”
Almirola, Blickensderfer, and the Richard Petty Motorsports team will now head to Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 where they hope to pull into victory lane.