NASCAR: Big change in the playoff picture after Charlotte

Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images) /

For the first time in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, a playoff regular finds himself on the bad side of the cut line.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola got off to a hot start in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, reeling off three straight top six finishes at Daytona International Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, and Las Vegas Motor Speedway to open up the year.

In fact, simply by finishing the season’s first two races inside the top 10, he singlehandedly kept a streak alive that goes back all the way to the 1974 season.

Not since 1973 has a season started without a single driver finishing both of the first two races in the top 10, and Almirola was the only driver to do so this year. And no, even had he not done so, the drivers in 11th place would not have been repeats either.

But it has been a struggle for the driver of the #10 Ford since then.

Almirola announced before the 2022 season began that it would be his 15th and final season in the Cup Series, making it his fifth and final season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

In each of his first four seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing since replacing Danica Patrick, he has qualified for the playoffs. He did so on points in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and he did so by winning a late regular season race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2021 after a disastrous start to the year.

After his hot start, the 38-year-old Florida native looked poised to make it five for five in terms of qualifying for the playoffs at Stewart-Haas Racing, but in the 11 races that have been contested since his three-race hot streak to open up the year, he has just one top 10 finish: an eighth place effort at Martinsville Speedway.

It’s not like Almirola has been terrible; he has actually been quite consistent. His worst finish of the year is a 26th place finish at Kansas Speedway. That result is the top worst finish among all 32 full-time drivers.

However, for the first time this year, he has dropped below the playoff cut line.

Almirola entered this past Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway as the 16th and final driver above the cut line, despite sitting in 12th place in the point standings; four drivers below him in the standings have earned victories in 2022.

But after finishing this race in 17th place, he lost two spots, dropping to 14th behind Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick and teammate Chase Briscoe.

He only dropped one spot in the playoff picture, since Briscoe was already ahead of him thanks to his victory at Phoenix Raceway, but that drop was still enough to put him outside of that top 16.

With 12 races remaining in the regular season, can Almirola turn it around?

He is only eight points below the cut line, but things aren’t exactly trending in the right direction. While there are plenty of opportunities for him to make up ground, there are also plenty of opportunities for more new winners to emerge, and that could further raise the cut line in terms of locking in on points.

The silly season story being ignored. dark. Next

Looking at the recent performance at some of the other drivers around him in the standings, he may very well need to pull off another upset victory to solidify his spot.