Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola reached Victory Lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18, his first win since 2018. He rebounded from a season of struggles and locked up a spot in the NASCAR playoffs. Almirola also created questions about his free agency future.
The veteran with 374 Cup Series starts to his name is currently racing in the final year of his deal with SHR. He will become a free agent at the end of the season, joining a long list of drivers that also includes Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain, Matt DiBenedetto, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. among others.
Considering the struggles through the first 21 races of the season, there were questions about whether team owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas would bring Almirola back for another year. Similarly, would longtime sponsor Smithfield Foods work with the veteran for another year after supporting him since the 2012 season and his time with Richard Petty Motorsports.
Following his win, however, the situation changes. Almirola is the only member of the SHR stable to reach Victory Lane, and he did so in wild fashion. If teammate Kevin Harvick falls below the playoff cut line in the remaining four regular-season races, Almirola will be the only driver representing the team in the chase for the championship trophy.
If Almirola finishes out the regular season with more strong performances and then contends for a spot in each round of the playoffs, he could see a long list of suitors. 23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing, and other teams in need of a driver could come calling, forcing SHR to sign Almirola to an extension to keep him in the building.
Almirola Originally Joined SHR in 2018
Almirola spent four seasons (2007-2010) driving sparingly for multiple teams and making 35 total starts. However, he landed a full-time ride in 2012 when he joined Richard Petty Motorsports and climbed into the iconic No. 43.
He proceeded to spend the first six years of his full-time career with the small team, posting 10 top-five finishes in the process. Almirola also won the first Cup Series race of his career on July 6, 2014, when he raced to Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway.
The veteran ultimately made the leap from RPM to SHR at the start of the 2018 season, bringing Smithfield along with him. He impressed during his first season with the team by reaching the playoffs on points and then winning at Talladega Superspeedway. Almirola reached the Round of eight and finished fifth in the standings, marking a career year.
While 2019 featured fewer top-five finishes, Almirola still reached the playoffs for the second consecutive season. He then rebounded in 2020 with six top-five finishes and 18 top-10s. He reached the playoffs as the 12th seed and landed a one-year contract extension that kept him with SHR through 2021.
SHR Drivers Have Struggled During 2021
While Kevin Harvick and Almirola are both in the playoffs, they have dealt with a wide variety of issues. All four drivers in the SHR stable have struggled due to crashes, mechanical issues, and a lack of speed. However, Harvick and Almirola turned in strong performances at New Hampshire and showed serious progress.
“It’s not one thing. If I could pin it on one thing, we could fix it immediately. It has eluded us,” Almirola said during his press conference after the New Hampshire race. “We just have not been as good, especially with the 550 package, as we need to be. It’s not from lack of effort. It’s not from lack of just want to. It’s we’re scratching our heads. We can’t figure out the race cars we need to bring to the racetrack. It’s been very challenging.
“But the one thing I do know is that our 750 package has been really good, especially here the last couple months. So I felt good about today. We were able to have a fast race car. We were able to get it done and win.”
Winning a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway does not guarantee that Almirola will reach the championship four, but the outing proves that he is capable of reaching Victory Lane away from superspeedways. He is now a threat to win with both the 550-horsepower and 750-horsepower packages.
Additionally, Almirola jumped from 27th in points to 19th after taking the checkered flag. Though his win puts him above the playoff cut line while winless drivers with more points drop below him. Almirola is the only member of the four-car stable to reach Victory Lane in 2021, and he will have the opportunity to impress multiple teams during the playoffs.