When the 2021 NASCAR season began, very few dates on the schedule had time set aside for qualifying and practice laps. The remainder incorporated the starting lineup formula implemented during a COVID-19-altered 2020 season. As Aric Almirola explained, this formula creates problems for teams with bottom-20 finishes.
The starting lineup formula takes into account four factors from the previous race: the fastest lap (15%), the driver’s finishing position (25%), the team owner’s finishing position (25%), and the team owner’s points ranking (35%).
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver met with media members on Wednesday evening and detailed how the formula can make it difficult for drivers to rebound from past struggles. If they crash and finish near the back of the pack, they will potentially start the next race on the schedule out of contention for a top finish. In traditional years, the drivers could land a top starting spot with a strong qualifying session, helping them rebound from the past week.
“In years past when we could go practice and qualify and do all of those things, if you had a bad weekend, as soon as that weekend was over, you debrief about it Monday [and] Tuesday,” Almirola told reporters, per Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass. “Then your focus is next week, going forward, and you literally forget about last week. If you unload and your car’s fast and you qualify in the top five, then you’ve got a great starting spot for next week’s race.
Almirola’s strong performances in 2020 helped him land top spots
Almirola was one of the Cup Series’ most consistent drivers during the 2020 season. He posted 18 top-10 finishes, including six in the top five. While he didn’t win a race, Almirola still reached the playoffs. He also learned that these strong performances continued to lead to solid starting positions based on the lineup formula.
“Last year, being on the opposite end of [the situation] and being up in the points and finishing good most times — even when we didn’t finish good, we were still up so high in points that we would still start in the top 15,” Almirola added. “It certainly makes a lot of difference. Things are a lot easier going into that next weekend. And the situation we are in right now makes it a lot harder to claw out of it.”
Almirola further explained his point by pointing back to his finish in the Toyota Owners 400. The No. 10 Ford Mustang finished sixth, the first top-10 of the year, and earned stage points. However, this finish was not enough to boost Almirola into a solid starting position. He still headed to the green flag at Talladega Superspeedway in the 14th position, finishing 15th
Almirola wants more than points on Sunday
Following the trip to Talladega, Almirola now has his sights set on reaching Victory Lane for the first time in 2021. His next opportunity will be on Sunday during the Buschy McBusch Race 400 at Kansas Speedway. He has previously run well at the track, posting six top-10s. Almirola’s best finish at Kansas was sixth in 2020.
Performing well will be critical for Almirola, especially after Sunday’s trip to Talladega. Brad Keselowski won his first race of the season, marking the ninth driver in 10 weeks to reach Victory Lane. Only 15 race winners head to the playoffs alongside the regular-season points champion. The number of available spots continues to shrink, and Almirola could be one of the many drivers left on the outside looking in after he made the playoffs on points alone in 2020.