The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Pocono (Pa.) Raceway this weekend and Aric Almirola and the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Fusion team for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) are riding some solid momentum after leading 42 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and finishing the 301-lap event in third.
With the NASCAR playoffs fast approaching, Almirola’s ability to maintain a position above the 16-driver cutline is vital. The good news is this weekend marks the Cup Series’ second trip to Pocono this season, and the young No. 10 Smithfield team is bringing a notebook to work from that was gathered during Almirola’s strong seventh-place finish there in June. “We’re going to be a contender,” Almirola said. “We’re going to be tough to beat. That’s what I keep telling everybody. We’re so new and so young. We’re 20 races into working together. We’re good, we’re not great. We have potential to be great because I don’t feel like we’ve reached our max potential just because everything is so new and we’re still learning each other, learning what I like in the racecars and all of those things.”
In Almirola’s six starts this season at tracks 2 miles or longer, he hasn’t finished outside the top-12, with the exception of the July event at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, where he was involved in an accident.
The 34-year-old will make his 13th Cup Series start at Pocono’s “Tricky Triangle.” Almirola has competed in the Cup Series at the three-turn track since 2012. His top-10 finish in June was his first there. The Smithfield driver has led two laps at the Pennsylvania track and has completed 1,495 of 1,836 possible laps.
While Almirola is having his best year ever in the Cup Series, his personal expectations continue to rise with his performance. “You would think I would be excited to finish in the top-five, but I’m not, I’m competitive and want more,” he said. “I play Candy Land with my kids and I don’t like to lose to my kids playing a game. I’m just competitive by nature and I want to win, especially for everybody who believes in me – Tony Stewart, Gene Haas, Smithfield – everybody who has just put so much into believing in me and giving me the opportunity to drive at Stewart-Haas Racing.”
Almirola’s crew chief Johnny Klausmeier is in his freshman season as the leader of a Cup Series crew. However, he has earned one career Cup Series victory, coming in June 2016 at Pocono while Klausmeier, then lead engineer on SHR’s No. 41 Ford Fusion driven by Kurt Busch, substituted for crew chief Tony Gibson.
In 20 Cup Series starts this year, Almirola has accrued an average start of 18.9 and an average finish of 12.6, with one top-five finish and eight top-10s. He’s also led 113 laps this season, already a career best. Almirola rounds out the four-driver SHR contingent at 11th in the point standings.
With summer in full swing, fans have the opportunity to celebrate the grilling season by entering Smithfield’s “Hero of the Grill” contest that Almirola and five-time world-champion barbecue pitmaster Tuffy Stone helped launch earlier this year. Fans are encouraged to nominate their favorite grill hero by visiting SmithfieldGetGrilling.com. One “Hero of the Grill” nominee will win $5,000. Plus, the first 10,000 nominees will have the chance to see their name featured on Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Ford at Richmond (Va.) Raceway in September.
Fans can also enter for their chance to win Smithfield’s Smoke Machine Mustang designed by team co-owner Tony Stewart with the help of drifting champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. They helped create a one-of-a-kind Ford Mustang RTR Spec 3 that will be given away to one lucky fan. Fans can register for their chance to win the suped-up Mustang and a trip to November’s Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead by visiting SmithfieldRacing.com, or by texting SMOKE to 82257.
Pocono Raceway marks the 19th points-paying event during which the Smithfield livery has adorned Almirola’s No. 10 Ford Fusion. Smithfield, a brand of Smithfield Foods, which is based approximately five hours northeast of SHR headquarters in Smithfield, Virginia, is in its seventh season with Almirola and its first with SHR. Founded in 1936, Smithfield is a leading provider of high-quality pork products, with a vast product portfolio including smoked meats, hams, bacon, sausage, ribs, and a wide variety of fresh pork cuts.
Ford has earned nine wins so far this season with Almirola’s SHR teammates earning eight of the victories for the Blue Oval – six by Kevin Harvick and two by Clint Bowyer. Harvick also captured the non-points-paying All-Star Race win at Charlotte. Ford has 23 all-time series wins at Pocono and the manufacturer won one of the two events there each in 2016 and 2017.
ARIC ALMIROLA, Driver of the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You mentioned wanting to win for all the people who have been supportive of you getting this opportunity. What you’ve been able to accomplish already this season, for you personally, does it serve as some justification for yourself that this is what you wanted to do?
“Yeah, absolutely it does. It makes me sleep better at night. I think, had my career ended at the end of last year and I never got another opportunity, for the rest of my life I would go to sleep at night and wonder how good I was as a racecar driver. I feel like it’s fair to say I’ve not had good enough equipment as an excuse. Well, now I have this opportunity here at Stewart-Haas Racing and equipment is not an excuse. We have the best of everything. We have everything we need to go out and compete for wins. It’s up to me and my team. So, yeah, I do feel like there is justification running up front and racing with Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – all those guys who run up front on a regular basis. It makes me feel like I’m capable and I can do it. That does make me feel better. At least I’ll be able to sleep at night knowing that, given the right opportunity, I could perform at that level. Now we’ve just got to figure out how to win.”
As you make a second trip to some of these tracks, are you going to be able to make that next step and start getting those wins?
“I think so, I really do. I feel like going back to some of these tracks that we’ll now have notes at – a lot of these tracks all year long we’ve shown up kind of blind. We have no real notebook. We’ve shown up and just kind of guessed at where we needed to unload, then throughout the weekend made a lot of changes to dial our car in and get it better. Now we’re going to go back to these races where we have a notebook. We changed these things in practice, we’ll start already with that in our car. We’ll be able to fine-tune on that and make that better. We’ve learned what not to do. We’ve gone to some racetracks earlier this year, made some changes and it was the wrong way. We know now not to venture down that path. It’s as much learning what to do as it is what not to do. It’s just building a foundation and a notebook. When you look at the teams that are very successful, the big three (Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr.) that everyone talks about, they’ve all been working together for three, four, five, six years, now. They’ve got a foundation. That’s what has me excited about my relationship with Johnny Klausmeier, my engineers, this whole 10 team, is that we’re young. We’re all a young group of guys all in our early 30s. We’re learning each other, we’re new. We’re already starting to compete with these guys in 20 races working together. I feel like we have so much potential to continue to get better.”
Daytona, Chicago, etc., you’ve had all these races where you’re right there. How do you keep positive, looking at the potential instead of wondering what’s going to go wrong next?
“It just has me more motivated, really. I just have more fire in my belly and more motivation. I have more confidence just knowing that we’re close, we’re right there. We’ve just got to keep pounding. We’ve got to keep grinding and keep after it. We’re going to win. We’re running too good. We’re too competitive to not win, it’s just a matter of when. ‘When’ are we going to win? I firmly believe that. I think that is the mentality that we all have on this team. That’s what has us fired up and we keep working hard every week. We don’t worry about anybody else. We’re just focused on our team, our car, doing the things we need to do to make our car go fast. We’re on the brink of getting there. Hopefully it happens soon. If not, I’ll take it in the first round of the playoffs, too.”