Aric Almirola assesses future, relishing what could be final year in Cup

Aric Almirola spent Thursday morning surrounded by the serenity of Lake Champlain in Vermont, visiting longtime friends in New England.

The timing was perfect before this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

MORE: Weekend schedule | New Hampshire odds

This midweek visit isn’t something Almirola made time for in previous years on the circuit. But after 11 years of racing full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series, Almirola deemed in January that 2022 would be his last. Now, Almirola is making time to savor his time on the tour with his family before hanging up his helmet.

“In the past, I would just be head down, so focused on racing and sponsors and doing all the things that I needed to do — or that I felt like I needed to do — to make sure that I was continuing my career and giving 110%,” Almirola told NASCAR.com in a Thursday teleconference. “And this year, it’s been more about relish it, enjoy it, take it all in, enjoy the moment.”

Almirola has done exactly that this season, pointing to additional time spent with his family than ever before as members join him at the track far more regularly. On the track, his two top fives equal last year’s total, while his six top-10 finishes already better his 2021 compilation.

While Almirola, a three-time winner in NASCAR’s premier series, made his impending retirement known six months ago, chatter looms that he has pondered a Cup Series return in 2023. Almirola admitted uncertainty about what his future holds.

“For me, personally, I’ve been business as usual going to the race track and focused on winning races and continuing to do what we need to do to make the playoffs,” Almirola said. “But all the stuff behind the scenes, yeah, I’ve been involved in a part of trying to help Smithfield and help Stewart-Haas Racing figure out what their plan is going forward, and I think there’s still just a lot of question marks just in general about what that’s going to look like from Smithfield’s side, from the race team’s side.

“And so I’ve had some discussions with them. And it’s been a very small part of (me) having an opinion and kind of weighing in. And I appreciate the fact that they’ve valued my opinion enough to be involved in it. I don’t know what will happen going forward, to be honest. I think the race team is still trying to figure out that and the sponsor is still trying to figure that out.

“Ultimately, I feel like I’ve made the decision to step away from the sport full-time just because it’s a grind. It really is. There’s no doubt about it. And it’s hard with my kids. They’re starting to gain a lot of momentum and seeking their own personal interests and playing sports and doing a lot of different things. And here, dad is still chasing his childhood dreams.”

Almirola is still navigating those challenges and in communication with all parties to determine those plans. Perhaps complicating matters is that Almirola is enjoying his time behind the wheel of his No. 10 Smithfield Ford.

“I will say that this year has been one of the most fun years I’ve ever had, and we’ve really embraced it,” Almirola said. “And as a family, we’ve gone to the race track more as a family this year than we ever have in the past. And it’s been really enjoyable. And as much as I’d like to continue to race, I also know that I’ve got a short gap in time to where my kids are going to have car keys and probably not going to want to hang out with dad. So I want to make sure that make the most of that as well.”

Almirola returns to New Hampshire this weekend as the defending winner, scoring a surprising yet strong victory at the 1.058-mile oval in 2021 after leading 25 laps for his first Cup triumph away from the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. The No. 10 team entered the event 27th in points and catapulted into the playoffs with the victory.

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“For me, that win was huge,” Almirola said. “We had gone through such a stretch of just bad finishes, bad luck and just seemed like nothing would go right for us. And then we went to Loudon, it was like, boom. Finally. Everything went right, right? We had a fast race car; we executed on pit road; I did my part. Just everything went perfectly and we were able to win.

“And it showed us what we were capable of, even when we felt like we were capable of it but none of the results were showing that. Loudon was a game changer for us and it really changed the outlook of our entire season.”

Almirola is certainly in a better position entering this year’s race, sitting 12th in the regular-season standings but 42 points out of a playoff spot.

“If I had to grade our season, I’d say it’s a B to B-plus. It’s been a good year, just hasn’t been great,” Almirola said. “We’ve missed getting the Victory Lane a few times. But overall, we’ve had a lot of consistency and we’ve run well, and I feel like we’re starting to figure out this new car. Every track is different. And we’re learning that last year’s success doesn’t guarantee success this year with this car.

“We’ve had to really re-evaluate and adapt the way we attack the weekend and the setups, and everything is so unique and so new with this car that it’s still a learning process. And I feel like we’ve been doing a good job through that learning process. And we just haven’t quite got it dialed in to figure out what we need for speed and the race car to go win each weekend.”

Another season-changing victory would be quite the send-off for Almirola in what seems to be his final year as a full-time Cup racer.