The new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rules package was debuted last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway with reduced horsepower to provide tighter racing at tracks 1 mile in length or longer. There was side-by-side racing during each restart, but the low grip of Atlanta’s 21-year-old racing surface evened the playing field within a few laps to each restart.
This weekend, NASCAR heads West to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) races for his second consecutive top-10 finish.
The team was quick to adapt to the new rules package last weekend when it laid down the quickest lap in the final round of qualifying to earn its first-career pole award as a team and become the first to earn a pole with the new Ford Mustang that debuted at the season-opening Daytona 500. It was Almirola’s second-career NASCAR Cup Series pole award – his first earned May 27, 2012 at Charlotte (N.C) Motor Speedway. Almirola led the first 36 laps at Atlanta, but was handed a pit-road speeding penalty early on, demoting the Mustang driver to the rear of the field. Almirola was able to race his way back to as high as sixth place and secured his first top-10 of the season.
With Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s much newer and smoother track surface, Almirola expects three-and four-wide racing to last much longer, providing plenty of excitement all afternoon long for the fans watching this weekend.
“Atlanta is a track that is very worn out and the cars slip and slide a lot,” Almirola said. “Vegas has a lot more grip and the cars are going to be way faster. The tires aren’t going to wear out as much as they did at Atlanta. I think you’ll see what we saw on the restarts at Atlanta for much longer in Vegas. I don’t think it will last the entire fuel run, but I think the crazy, wild restarts are going to last more like 10 or 12 laps. I think it’s going to be wild and we’re going to have more three- and four-wide racing for a lot longer.”
Being able to drive both at the front of the field and the back of the field last weekend gave Almirola perspective on what’s to come at intermediate tracks this year. He’ll look to benefit from that knowledge this weekend in the same black-and-white Smithfield paint scheme he sported last weekend. Founded in 1936, Smithfield is a leading provider of high-quality pork products, with a vast product portfolio including smoked meats, hams, bacon, sausage, ribs, and a wide variety of fresh pork cuts.Smithfield is based approximately five hours northeast of SHR headquarters in Smithfield, Virginia.
“When we were out front in clean air, our car was really fast and drove really well,” Almirola said. “When we fell back to second and third, our car was really fast but our car didn’t drive as well. Then, when we got a speeding penalty and went to the back, the car was a handful. Getting clean air is going to be one of the biggest challenges. No matter what rules package you have, the clean air is always going to be important. Your car makes the most amount of downforce when it’s in clean air. Every car you get behind just makes conditions worse and you lose grip and handling.”
Almirola scored his first- and second-career top-10s at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval last season and plans to carry the momentum to this weekend’s first of three consecutive West-Coast races as NASCAR. In addition to his Cup Series starts, Almirola has four Xfinity Series starts at Las Vegas, where he’s never finished outside the top-17 or started outside the top-15. The Cuban American has also made three starts in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series and completed all three events inside the top-10.
He enters the third race of the season 11th in the standings with 58 points – 29 out of first place. He’ll look to move on up in the standings with another solid effort this weekend in Las Vegas.