By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
NASCAR’s return to Nashville Superspeedway marked Aric Almirola’s best run of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Almirola ran inside the top-10 throughout the final Stage of the Ally 400 on Sunday. Several cautions early in the Stage put the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang on the same pit strategy as most of the field. Almirola started the final green flag run just outside the top-five.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver battled with Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch for position throughout the first half of the 68-lap run. Both Almirola and Busch made quick work of Elliott as the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE suffered from a loose wheel. Almirola left Busch behind as he ran down and passed teammate Kevin Harvick.
In the closing laps, Ross Chastain, on fresher tires, snuck by Almirola for third. When the checkered flag waved, the Tampa, FL native was fourth. It marked the first time in two months that Almirola finished inside the top-10.
“It means we’re working hard,” explained Almirola. “We’ve had a lot of races where the 4 (Harvick) has been a 10th-place car and the other three of us have run 25th it seems like. We’ve been working so hard.
“When you run bad it’s 10 times as much work because you’re going down every single different avenue trying to figure out what’s going to make speed in the race cars. When you have fast race cars it’s easy because you just massage on it and polish it and keep going to the racetrack with what you know is fast. We’ve been working so hard.
“I’m proud of everybody back at the shop (Stewart-Haas) and specifically this 10 team. We’ve been off and it’s been nice to get it back and go on here in the right direction after two weeks in a row of running up front.”
Almirola’s weekend started off strong. In qualifying, the 37-year-old won the pole. That was just the third pole position in his Cup career. Almirola missed out on stage points in the first Stage after pitting. He finished the second Stage in eighth, earning an additional three points.
The fourth-place finish is Almirola’s first top-five of the 2021 Cup Series season and the 25th of his Cup career. It was his first top-five finish since the 2020 Bristol Motor Speedway playoff race.
Despite the top-five finish, Almirola remains mired 28th in the points standings. He’s 18-points behind teammate Cole Custer, and 43 behind the fourth Stewart-Haas driver, Chase Briscoe. Almirola is 151-points behind the playoff cutoff, held by Chris Buescher. He’s 443-points behind leader Denny Hamlin.
With nine races left before the playoffs, Almirola’s best hope at making the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is a win.
Featured photo by Matt Courson / Kickin’ the Tires