RELATED: Almirola involved in wreck at Kansas
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Aric Almirola said he hadn’t lost his love of racing, but admitted that after six years of competing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, things had become somewhat “routine.”
It took a broken back to remind the Richard Petty Motorsports driver how much he enjoyed what he did for a living.
“Getting back in the race car yesterday was an awesome feeling,” Almirola said Wednesday, “because you miss how you feel when you get that adrenaline rush of running 200 miles an hour in a stock car.”
Almirola took part in a closed test at Charlotte Motor Speedway Tuesday to obtain medical clearance to return to competition. The 33-year-old Tampa, Florida, native suffered a compound fracture of the T5 vertebra in a crash this past May at Kansas Speedway. He was sidelined for eight weeks, missing seven points races, while recovering from the injury.
“In the very beginning it was all very new and very exciting and after a while it was just what I did,” Almirola, a one-time winner in the series, said. “I got on an airplane on Thursday, flew to the race track and I raced that weekend; we did the best we could and we came home. It got very routine, very monotonous – not that I ever lost my passion or lost my love of racing but it just became sort of routine and I somewhat took it for granted.
“Then just in a moment it got taken away and you realize ‘Wow I miss it; I love it. I want to go back. I want to race again.'”
Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Almirola, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and team co-owner Richard Petty unveiled this year’s paint scheme for the upcoming Southern 500 throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway.
Team officials announced earlier Wednesday that Almirola had been cleared to return to competition, and he will be in the familiar No. 43 Ford for RPM in this weekend’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“My doctors told me right from the beginning that they weren’t going to let me go back in the race car before they felt confident that I could withstand another accident,” Almirola said. “It wasn’t about how I felt, if I could go actually drive the race car. It was about whether or not my body could withstand another accident.
“I felt great after the test; we spent four hours at the race track, I ran a lot of laps, a couple of fuel loads. I really had no pain to speak of. I had a little soreness last night, just muscles in my back that haven’t really been used even though I work out and have been exercising.”
Almirola will make one more trip to the doctor, on Thursday “just to make sure everything looks good,” he said.
The seat inside his car has been changed to improve his posture, he said, based on recommendations from the doctor. “That way if I do get in another accident, which is inevitable, I will be in another accident as long as I drive a race car, just trying to have better posture and a better alignment of my spine,” he said. “Because we feel like … it might have happened regardless. But my posture pre-crash was a little bit more curvature of the spine, a little more curled up so that didn’t help things.”
Blickensderfer knows the feeling of being away from the track.
“I think all of us have had times in (our) career when you do this every week where if you take a step back and I did a couple of years ago … it reinvigorated me and I wanted to go again,” Blickensderfer said. “So I can understand exactly what he’s thinking.
“His first laps on the race track yesterday at Charlotte he immediately keyed up the mic and after his third lap he comes to us in the garage area and says ‘Man, I really miss this.'”
While he missed seven points races, Almirola is just outside the top 30 in the championship driver points standings. He would need to be 30th or higher to be eligible for a position in this year’s playoffs should he win one of the next eight races. He would also need a waiver from NASCAR since he hasn’t competed in all of this year’s points races.
“It’s not out of the question,” Almirola said. “I’m only a few points out of 30th. I think that’s very doable for us; we’ve run really well at some of these tracks coming up.”
Three drivers filled in for the organization during Almirola’s recovery – Regan Smith, Billy Johnson and Darrell Wallace. Smith competed at Charlotte and Dover while Johnson filled in at Sonoma. Wallace made starts at Pocono, Michigan, Daytona and most recently Kentucky where he finished 11th.