Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Aric Almirola OK with sleeper label, aims to maximize playoff potential

In the opening stage of media-day rotations before the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, one name kept coming up in the discussion of underdogs primed to make a deeper postseason run than might be expected: Aric Almirola.

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Teammates and otherwise unaffiliated drivers alike pointed to the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran, who ticks plenty of boxes as a trendy sleeper pick. For Almirola, if others think he’s flying below the radar, so be it.

“I’m good if they do. It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks, and that’s an attitude I’ve had for a long time,” said Almirola, who is making his third straight playoff appearance since joining SHR in 2018. “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 if is working with (crew chief Mike) 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’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.”

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Almirola hasn’t won this year, a prime factor in his omission from the short list of heavy favorites. But the 36-year-old driver has already posted career-high numbers in other categories this season, tallying a personal-best with five top-five finishes and 287 laps led (well more than his previous high of 181 two years ago).

Almirola’s 2020 stats haven’t illuminated the highlight reel in the way the performance of SHR teammate Kevin Harvick (seven wins) or Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin (six wins) has. But he does hold two of the Cup Series’ most steady streaks this year — a run of five consecutive top-five results contained in a stretch of nine straight top 10s in the summer months.

“The 10 (of Almirola) has been kind of sneaky and just consistent — nothing flashy, but just kind of doing his thing — so I would say that’s one car that can probably get pretty far through,” Team Penske driver Joey Logano said. “They’ve got pretty good speed, they don’t make many mistakes and they just kind of get through. The first couple of rounds that’s one of the things that this playoff system rewards the first couple rounds is being consistent.”

Those gains have come under the guidance of Bugarewicz, who was installed as crew chief of the No. 10 Ford as part of an offseason shake-up at SHR. Almirola described him as “probably the most intense crew chief that I’ve ever had,” detailing his sleepless work ethic, his fiery competitive drive and a meticulous detail-oriented approach.

All of those factors have given him boundless confidence entering the playoffs, plus a clear head knowing his contract status for 2021 is secure. Almirola and sponsor Smithfield re-upped for next year shortly after the regular-season finale, removing one less possible distraction from the team’s playoff list.

“So far, I’ve been able to have some success. I still want more,” Almirola said. “I still have a burning desire to win more races, lead more laps and ultimately win a championship, but, so far, we’ve been successful.”