NASCAR: Why the first big silly season domino fell when it did

Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Aric Almirola is in his fifth and final NASCAR Cup Series season with Stewart-Haas Racing. Why did he make the announcement when he did?

Even before the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season began, silly season had already started for 2023.

Aric Almirola, who is in his 15th season in the series and fifth as the full-time driver of the #10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, announced that the 2022 season would be his last, guaranteeing at least one lineup change for the four-car team for next year.

Did the fact that the 38-year-old Fort Walton Beach, Florida native announced his impending retirement early serve as somewhat of a weight lifted off his shoulders entering 2022?

In some ways, yes, but that wasn’t the reason why he made the announcement when he did.

“Yes and no,” Almirola told Beyond the Flag. “I think it was, but at the same time, I just felt like it was the right thing to do for my partners and the race team so that they could start navigating what’s next for them. I felt like it would be totally unfair for me to kind of have that idea and that feeling like this was going to be it, but then me keep it to myself and kind of spring it on the race team and my partners.

“Personally, I felt like it was the right thing to do, not only for me and my family life, but for the people who have invested so much in me and my career, to give them enough of a runway to start planning what’s next.”

That decision, of course, has given the team ample time to decide on a replacement for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, and they are taking advantage of it, as they have not yet confirmed who that replacement will be.

Ryan Preece, the team’s official reserve driver, would make sense, but there have been a number of other interesting names recently thrown into the mix.

But while Almirola may not view it as an advantage in terms of his own performance, he is driving at a much higher level this year compared to last year.

Last season, it looked as though Almirola might miss the playoffs for the first time since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 as Danica Patrick’s replacement. In fact, he was nowhere near the cut line to get in on points. But a late regular season win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway made it four straight playoff appearances for the driver of the #10 Ford.

This year, he has had a much stronger start to the season. He sits in 11th place in the point standings through 16 of 26 regular season races. In fact, he was the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the season’s first two races, which singlehandedly extended a streak that dates back to 1974, and it took until the season’s fourth race for him to finish lower than sixth.

However, without a win, he only sits in 16th place out of 16 drivers currently above the playoff cut line, meaning that, with more winners (or a drop in points), he could end up needing to win to get in, just like he did last year.

Almirola admits that he still looks at the points situation, though his goal is to do what he did last year and win.

“You still look at the points,” he admitted. “My entire career, even when I was go-kart racing and I was racing for championships, state championships, national championships, you always look at the points. You want to know where you stack up. … But I also am aware that I feel like we’re going to need to win to be safe.”

His goal is, one way or another, to be locked into the playoffs before the NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale in late August at Daytona International Speedway, where it’s so easy for everything to go wrong.

“I think every driver wants to go to Daytona with that weight off of their shoulders, knowing that they’re already locked into the playoffs and you can kind of go race that race for fun and go try to win and score points,” Almirola explained. “But man, that is a tough place to have to go to when you’re on a razor-thin margin points-wise and you’re trying to race your way in.

“But we’ve seen it done. We saw William Byron do it [in 2020]. It can be done, and I think it’s the excitement that our sport does so well, right? We as a sport figure out a way to create a schedule to make it super nerve-wracking for the drivers, which makes it awesome for the fans. That’s exactly what Daytona is.

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“Daytona as a cutoff race is insane. It puts so much pressure on the drivers to hopefully not get caught up in somebody else’s mess, don’t make a mistake, because your season, at that point, is really riding on whether or not you get into the playoffs based on that race.”