Patrick often mixed in workouts and cooking with her race weekend obligations. Almirola plays ”Hungry Hungry Hippos” with his kids.
But the widest gap between the two is not in personality but in how they handled the No. 10 car at Stewart-Haas Racing.
The 34-year-old Almirola has already achieved more in one season (one top five finish, nine top 10s) driving the car as the retired Patrick’s replacement than she did in five winless seasons (no top fives, seven top 10s) at SHR. And he is inching closer to victory lane.
Almirola positioned himself late to win Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway until he was derailed by a poor pit stop and then spun his tires on a restart that likely cost him his first Cup Series victory since July 2014. He also wasn’t helped when SHR teammate Clint Bowyer stayed out with damage and hit the wall, bringing out the caution flag and wiping out Almirola’s lead.
”Everybody keeps telling me, `You’ve got to lose some before you win some.’ So we’ve lost some,” Almirola said. ”Time to stop it. Time to go to victory lane. We’re capable. We have a race team capable of doing it.”
Almirola and primary sponsor Smithfield Foods made the jump to SHR after one victory and 200-plus starts at Richard Petty Motorsports. Team owner Tony Stewart had known Almirola for more than a decade and was ready to give him the chance to complete in elite equipment.
”I feel like it’s fair to say that I’ve had not good enough equipment as an excuse,” Almirola said. ”Well, now I have this opportunity here (at SHR) 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.”
Almirola made an instant impact in his first start at the Daytona 500. He was running first with one lap left but was turned and sent spinning by winner Austin Dillon. Almirola faded to 11th and admitted to sleepless nights over how he should have stood tall at the ”Great American Race.”
Almirola’s lone Cup victory, at Daytona in July 2014, comes with the asterisk: It was shortened by rain. He also earned an Xfinity Series win for a race he didn’t even finish when he was forced out the car in the middle of a race he was dominating. Denny Hamlin closed out the win and Almirola refused to accept the victory.
Without rain or replacement, Almirola knows he’s on the cusp of a complete game victory.
”We’re going to win,” he said. ”We’re running too good. We’re too competitive not to win. It’s just a matter of when. When are we going to win?”
Almirola led 70 laps at Chicagoland and led 42 and finished third behind Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch at New Hampshire. Going into this weekend’s race at Pocono, he is 11th in the points standings and seems a lock to make the playoffs with six races left before the 16-driver field is set.
With each run up front, the decision to join Harvick, Bowyer and Kurt Busch at SHR has proved every week to be the best one of his career.
”It makes me sleep better at night,” he said. ”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 race car driver.”
The good times are rolling at SHR: Kurt Busch won the pole and finished eighth; and Harvick and Almirola placed in the top three.
”It’s great to have that 10 car being a valuable tool to the other three cars at Stewart-Haas,” Harvick said.
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