2021 season in review: Aric Almirola

Editor’s Note: This continues the series of season reviews for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs drivers.

Driver: Aric Almirola
Car:
No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang
Crew chief: Mike Bugarewicz
Final 2021 ranking: 15th
Key stats: 1 win, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s, 51 laps led

How 2021 ended:
After qualifying for his fourth straight playoffs, Almirola’s finishes of 16th at Darlington Raceway, 14th at Richmond Raceway and 18th at Bristol Motor Speedway saw him exit the playoffs in the first round for the second time in three years.

But as the playoffs rolled on, Almirola improved, with both his top 10s coming in the final two races: sixth at Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, his second-best results at those respective tracks.

Best race:
Almirola’s season highlight was winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this summer. Coming out of seemingly nowhere, Almirola’s speed was evident from the drop of the green flag. After starting 22nd, he made his way inside the top 10 and gained stage points in the second frame before quickly passing cars on his way to the lead battle as the laps wound down

In total, Almirola led 25 laps (including the last 20) before darkness forced the event to end eight laps early en route to his third career victory and first on a non-superspeedway.

RELATED: Aric Almirola flips playoff picture with New Hampshire win

Additional highlights:

• Kicked off the 2021 season winning the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona International Speedway.

• A sixth-place finish at Richmond, his seventh top 10 there, gave the veteran his first top 10 of the season in April.

• Winning the pole at Nashville Superspeedway in June before finishing fourth gave Almirola the confidence to know the speed on 750 horsepower tracks was enough to not just contend, but win. And that’s exactly what he did at New Hampshire a month after Nashville, punching his playoff ticket.

Stat to know:
In the Cup Series’ first ever trip to Nashville Superspeedway, Almirola won the pole, marking only the third P1 start of his career. With qualifying only taking place eight times over the course of the year, Almirola showed his single lap speed was still prevalent in time trials.

Quotable:
“Nobody should have thought that we were going to win. Only our race team is the people that should have thought that or believed that. I mean, based on our performance especially this year, we haven’t been a contender to win. Coming into this race we never really gave anybody a reason to pick us, to be completely honest. I know that. It feels good to be the underdog and kind of come out of nowhere and have a race car like we did, kind of put it to ’em at the end of the race and drive off and go win this race.” – Almirola after his New Hampshire victory

RELATED: Aric Almirola’s career highlights

Looking ahead:
Almirola has established himself as a perennial playoff driver at Stewart-Haas Racing but has only advanced past the first round twice in his four years with the organization. Making it to the Round of 12 or even the Round of 8 could be a realistic goal for Almirola and company in 2022 to improve on their steady performance over the last half decade.

With three superspeedway events in the regular season presenting themselves as some of Almirola’s best chances to score a win (plus one in the postseason), the playoffs remain the expectation for driver No. 10, but advancement throughout them also remains the goal.

While nothing official has been announced from Almirola or SHR, the two are expected to remain together for a fifth season with Smithfield returning as a primary sponsor of the No. 10 Ford. Add in the Next Gen car providing an opportunity for all drivers and teams to start from a proverbial square one (Almirola was the fastest on Day 2 of the Charlotte oval test) and Almirola/SHR will look to earn their fifth consecutive playoff berth and help reascend the organization to Victory Lane on a weekly basis after a one-win season in 2021.