Aric Almirola and the No. 10 Smithfield Ford team for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) enter the season’s first race on a mile oval Sunday at Phoenix Raceway fresh off and eighth-place finish last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Over the offseason, crew chief Mike Bugarewicz moved from SHR’s No. 14 team with Clint Bowyer to the No. 10 team with Almirola. After three 2020 starts, the team is confident heading to Phoenix after running as high as fourth at Fontana and putting together a respectable top-10 finish in its Ford Mustang.
“I thought we had a top-five car in Fontana and we just kept giving away all of our track position,” Almirola said. “We have to do better, but we are building and we got a top-10 and we will take that and move on. I think we have a lot of potential. I think Buga (Bugarewicz) and all the guys did a great job with our Smithfield Ford Mustang and I felt like we had a top-10 car going into the race and we proved that.”
Statistically speaking at Phoenix, it would be safe to forecast another strong run for the No. 10 Ford team this weekend. In three of Almirola’s last four Cup Series starts at the desert oval, he has earned two top-five finishes and another top-10.
Of Almirola’s 62 top-10s earned in 319 career Cup Series starts, 19 have been at tracks a mile in length or shorter. In 18 career starts at Phoenix, Almirola has totaled two top-four finishes, four top-10s and has led 26 laps. He has an average finish of 12.7 there and is ranked ninth among all drivers in the last 10 races.
“We still have a lot to learn as a team, but we’re on the right track,” Almirola said. “We still need a bit more to compete for wins every weekend and I’m thankful for the guys and girls at Stewart-Haas who have worked so hard during the offseason to make sure we start strong, and we have.”
Almirola has certainly excelled in his seven NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Phoenix, having captured the pole in November 2011 to go with 74 laps led and a pair of top-10 finishes. Earlier in his career, Almirola made three starts in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series at the “Diamond in the Desert.” Two of those three starts resulted in top-five finishes, and he led a total of 52 laps.
“You have to have everything at Phoenix,” Almirola continued. “You have to have downforce, grip in your car and good brakes. You have to make sure your car turns well across the center of turns one and two, which is a sharp, banked corner. And then you have turns three and four, which are really fast and sweeping and flat. You’ve got to have a car that’s versatile and is a good compromise for both corners.”
Almirola has career totals of two wins, two poles, 18 top-five finishes, 62 top-10s and 543 laps led in 319 starts. His last win came in October 2018 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.