ThatsRacin

Most unlikely NASCAR title contender? Aric Almirola, who is still surprising himself.

Aric Almirola celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series’  1000Bulbs.com at Talladega Superspeedway this month.
Aric Almirola celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series’ 1000Bulbs.com at Talladega Superspeedway this month. AP

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Aric Almirola doesn’t give a hoot about what you or anyone else thinks of him.

And that’s not being rude either, because the 34-year-old NASCAR Cup Series driver is far from impolite. At Tuesday’s Goodyear tire test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he took a fair bit of time out of his already-shortened lunch just to meet with anxious reporters.

Rather, it’s just ... well, he’s got a lot of better things to do these next few weeks than making sure he gets his due credit on social media or television shows or in newspaper articles.

Things like, you know, doing his job? Winning one of the next three upcoming playoff races and clinching a spot in the championship finale at Homestead?

Yeah, it’s fair to say that matters much more to Almirola than any story that could be written.

“That makes no difference,” Almirola said Tuesday of his lack of media exposure. “Like, it’s your job and the media’s job to write stories and come up with headlines. ...I don’t care what anybody else says or thinks about our team, or thinks about whether we’re championship contenders or not.

“All I care about is what we need to do to go fast and beat everybody else.”

That attitude has paid off spectacularly for Almirola this season. As one of just eight remaining playoff drivers, he is arguably NASCAR’s most unexpected championship contender.

But the amazing thing about Almirola this season, his first with Stewart-Haas Racing, isn’t just that he’s still in these playoffs. It’s that, even against up-and-comer Chase Elliott (who has more wins this season than Almirola does for his career) and the Big 3 of Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, Almirola has a legitimate shot at a championship.

All that’s left is to win one race.

“I’m fired up, honestly,” Almirola said. “Like, this is an opportunity of a lifetime for me. To have my first real shot at going to race for a championship is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid.”

Of the upcoming three tracks — Martinsville this Sunday, then Texas and Phoenix — Almirola has been best in his career at Phoenix, where he finished seventh earlier this season and has the fourth-best average finish there of any track in his Cup career. But he’s not focusing on that one race alone, just like he isn’t harping on any one race from this season — not even his first win of 2018 two weeks ago at Talladega.

And about that win? Almirola estimates he only enjoyed that victory, his first since 2014 and second ever at the Cup Series level, for about 24 hours. Then, it was time to move on.

“There’s a small window of opportunity to enjoy it, and then it’s over,” Almirola said. “You can’t be complacent. Winning one weekend doesn’t help you win the next weekend. You’ve got to re-focus and get geared back up.”

So aside from his lone win this season, the fact that few in the mainstream media are talking about him, and the fact that he isn’t focused on either of those things, is there anything else that makes Almirola such an unlikely championship contender?

How about the fact that even he didn’t expect to make it this far in his first season with Stewart-Haas?

“Honestly, no (I didn’t expect to get to this point this quickly),” Almirola said. “I thought we would have success — I thought we would run good, I thought we would make the playoffs, I really did . And I felt confident about all of those things. But I didn’t really think we would make it this far in our first year working together.

“But I wasn’t sure. There were so many unknowns that I didn’t know what to expect past making the playoffs.”

And now, all this has happened. Win one of these next three races, and Almirola — who has never finished a season better than 16th overall — will be one of four drivers competing for a championship at Homestead (Fla.) in November.

It would make for a nice homecoming given his upbringing in Florida. But really, it would just be the culmination of a season that has even surpassed Almirola’s expectations.

Just don’t expect him to get all choked up about media requests if he makes it that far.

Almirola said he he’ll have more important things to worry about.



“Harvick and Kyle and Martin, they all went out and won a bunch of races at the beginning of the year, so they deserve every bit of the attention that they’ve received,” Almirola said. “But for us, we know the way the playoff system works and we know what our capabilities are, and it doesn’t matter to us if we’re part of the Big 3 or not.

“All we have to do these next three weeks is go win a race, and then we’re going to Homestead to go race for a championship.”

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