By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
Extra seat time at Sonoma Raceway paid off for Aric Almirola. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series veteran competed in his first Sonoma Cup race since 2016 after being sidelined last year due to a back injury.
Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Ford Fusion team cut the final stage into thirds, like his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates. As the laps wound down, he found himself battling with Erik Jones, Alex Bowman, and Daniel Suarez. Almirola and his crew chief Johnny Klausmeier banked on the possibility of a late-race caution to have a chance at victory. However, that caution never came, and he finished eighth.
Almirola ran inside the top-10 through the entire Toyota / Save Mart 350. While teammate Kevin Harvick, and eventual race-winner Martin Truex, Jr. pitted prior to the end of each stage Almirola remained on track. The strategy earned him two stage finishes well within the Top-10.
“We are just plugging away,” Almirola said. “As solid as they come. We are a top-10 car and this just goes to show me and all of our guys that we are a top-10 car everywhere. I have just run top-10 at my two career worst race tracks, Pocono and Sonoma. If we can do that, that is incredible. It speaks true volumes about how great this race team is and how great our race cars are because they carry me at those two places where I know I struggle.”
Almirola was one of five drivers that competed in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race to gain experience at the 1.99-mile, 11-turn road course. He led 23 laps of the K&N Pro race before finishing runner-up to Will Rodgers by 4.420 seconds. William Byron, Bowman, Jones, and Suarez also ran in the Carneros 200 to get extra seat time.
“I have tried really hard to become a better road course racer and I put a lot of effort into this weekend running the K&N car to help me for today and it certainly did,” Almirola stated. “To come out of here with a top-10 is an awesome day for me. I am proud of everyone on this Smithfield Team. Our Ford Fusion was fast. All four of our Stewart-Haas Racing cars are in the top-10 so everyone back at the shop should be really proud of themselves. We called a great race with great strategy and scored some stage points. It was a great day for us.”
The eighth-place finish is the seventh top-10 of the season, and first at Sonoma for Almirola. It also moved him into 10th-place in the Championship Points Standings, 225-points behind Points Leader Kyle Busch. Almirola has a 108-point cushion over the cutoff for the Playoffs, currently held by Bowman.
Now Almirola, Klausmeier, and the entire team will prepare for the Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, July 1.