It’s become something of the standard this NASCAR season, but once again last week, the sport’s Big 3 — Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick — stole the top spots on the leaderboard. Harvick narrowly edged Busch for his series-leading sixth win of the season, and Truex wasn’t far behind in fourth place.
But sandwiched right between the Big 3?
Ol’ Aric Almirola.
Almirola, who is in his first season driving the No. 10 car for Stewart-Haas Racing (the same team as Harvick and two-time winner this season, Clint Bowyer), has had his ups and downs, but that third-place finish at New Hampshire was certainly among the highest of highs. And while Almirola is tracking for the playoffs if he keeps up his current pace — he’s 11th in the points standings with six regular season races left — that isn’t the storyline most often associated with him.
Rather, the conversation usually is less about Almirola’s accomplishments and more about who he replaced in that No. 10 car:
The one and only, Danica Patrick.
Patrick, of course, was arguably the most successful female NASCAR driver in history, right up there with Janet Guthrie in terms of accomplishments and breaking barriers. But if your measure of success comes from on-track achievements, well ... Patrick left a good amount to be desired.
In 191 Cup Series races, Patrick had a meager seven Top 10 finishes. She never earned a Top 5. And while her lone pole at the 2013 Daytona 500 was notable (obviously), and her eighth-place finish in that race was equally impressive, it never really led to anything greater — she ended that season 27th overall.
And while no, Almirola hasn’t won this season either, he’s certainly been much closer than Patrick ever was in Cup racing. For starters, he actually has a Cup Series win, at the second Daytona race in 2014. He almost added a second earlier this season when he led on the last lap of the Daytona 500, only for Austin Dillon to steamroll past him and send him limping to the checkered flag.
But even without a gaudy number of wins, Almirola has proven to have something Patrick never showed at NASCAR’s highest level: consistency. Almirola, driving worse equipment than Patrick ever had, consistently finished better at season’s end than his predecessor. It only made sense that when Stewart-Haas declined to renew Patrick’s contract last fall, they would find someone more ... competitive, let’s say, than she ever was.
Almirola is that guy. He may not ever be the marketing sensation that Patrick was, and he may not ever be a genuine NASCAR superstar, but he’s proven in the first 20 weeks of this season that he is a better driver than Patrick was. The stats back it up, and so does the eye test.
None of this is to undermine all that Patrick did accomplish in NASCAR — the first pole by a woman, the first Top 10 finish by a woman, the first woman to run an entire Cup Series schedule — but rather to highlight Almirola’s pleasantly surprising season. Patrick was a tremendous boost for NASCAR, especially in an era where TV ratings are on the decline and fans are leaving the sport in droves. That should be celebrated, and remembered, and when a woman does eventually win a Cup Series race, Patrick will have helped lay the groundwork for it.
But for all the good she did for the sport — enough so that she may one day end up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame — she was just never that good or that consistent on the track.
Almirola is. And if you’re a fan of the No. 10 team, he’s more than a suitable replacement for one of NASCAR’s most memorable drivers.
This week’s NASCAR race: Pocono: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander Outdoors 400.
Distance: 160 laps, or 400 miles.
Where: Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile asphalt triangle in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.
Also this week: U.S. Cellular 250 presented by The Rasmussen Group, Xfinity Series, Iowa Speedway, 5 p.m., Saturday, NBCSN.
Worth mentioning: This is the second of two races this season at Pocono Raceway, with Martin Truex Jr. winning the first in June.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Kevin Harvick: A series-leading sixth win last weekend gives him a slight edge over Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. ... for now.
Chase Elliott: A Top 5 finish isn’t as sweet as that elusive first win would have been, but Elliott is moving himself steadily up the points leaderboard.
Clint Bowyer: A DNF at New Hampshire last week made it three straight weeks outside of the Top 10 for Bowyer, who has fallen back to eighth in the points standings.
Brad Keselowski: Two finishes outside the Top 30 in the last three weeks isn’t the kind of form Keselowski needs as the regular season draws to a close.