CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Tony Stewart passionately believed in Aric Almirola when others dismissed the racecar driver as a journeyman with nothing more to offer than the backing of a bacon company sponsor. Stewart had a chance to replace Danica Patrick in one of the four Stewart-Haas entries — the weakest of the teams, statistically — and Almirola was his guy. It merely helped that Almirola had Smithfield, a pork company that not only wanted to win NASCAR races but wanted to do it with him, was a coveted sponsor throughout the entire garage.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Tony Stewart passionately believed in Aric Almirola when others dismissed the racecar driver as a journeyman with nothing more to offer than the backing of a bacon company sponsor.
Stewart had a chance to replace Danica Patrick in one of the four Stewart-Haas entries — the weakest of the teams, statistically — and Almirola was his guy. It merely helped that Almirola had Smithfield, a pork company that not only wanted to win NASCAR races but wanted to do it with him, was a coveted sponsor throughout the entire garage.
But Stewart wanted him for reasons beyond the financial backing. He'd first encountered Almirola at least a decade earlier, when Stewart was a champion driver at Joe Gibbs Racing and Almirola was touted as a future star. Almirola got bounced around the system, wound up at Richard Petty Motorsports and was making a living but not winning races.
The No. 10 car at SHR should have been as competitive as the others, Stewart believed, and with Patrick out it opened the door for Almirola to get out of mid-level equipment and show he had the talent to run with NASCAR's elite.
"Everybody said I was crazy for hiring Aric. I wonder if they think I'm crazy now?" Stewart said. "No matter what happens for him the rest of the year, he's proven what I knew all along. It was just a matter of getting him in a car that could help him show his potential."
With Almirola in a star-studded lineup that includes former series champions Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, as well as Clint Bowyer, SHR has a remarkable four cars remaining in the third round of NASCAR's playoffs. Eight drivers race Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia for a slot in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where four will race for the title.
SHR could mathematically take all four slots in the winner-take-all championship field.
"In the perfect world it would be all four racing each other for a championship versus somebody else," Stewart said. "There is strength in numbers. But it's hard to think we'll get all four of them there. Two of them? That's feasible. I'd love to believe we could do four, but I honestly do believe our best shot is two and maybe three."
What about Harvick? Well, the seven-time winner has racked up so many bonus points that Stewart said "unless there's a natural disaster, he should make it to the finals." So that's one of the four.
What about a second? Busch and Bowyer are going to have to be nearly perfect. Busch would have had an easy path into the third round if he'd won at Talladega instead of running out of gas in the final overtime laps, and both had to squeeze out every last point last weekend at Kansas to make it through to this round.
"Neither one of them should be having any drama," Stewart said. "The only thing holding us back right now is ourselves. Our mistakes are what will keep us from moving on."
Then there's Almirola, the surprise SHR entry in the mix.
He got Patrick's old team that, as everyone well knows, never won any races. Almirola brought some consistency to the effort, not to mention what Stewart called "a renewed energy."
"The thing about him," Stewart said, "is he's so hungry to win, but it's also very important for him to be a great teammate. It was a huge opportunity for him to come over, but he wanted to make sure right off the bat that he was a good teammate within the organization. That's really resonated with the guys and it has set the tone for all the teams."
So now it's SHR versus everybody else for the next three races: at Martinsville, Texas and the cutoff race just outside Phoenix, Arizona. Almirola is the wild card, up against his own teammates and the so-called "Big 3" of Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
That trio dominated so much of the year, but they've cooled off of late and the momentum shifted to Chase Elliott, winner of two of the last three races. Elliott might have raced for the championship last year but he was wrecked while leading late at Martinsville.
Regardless, a win Sunday gets a driver an automatic berth in the final four. It once seemed as though three slots were guaranteed for the "Big 3," but now its wide open with SHR looking to grab as many as possible through race victories — just like Elliott and Joey Logano. It's going to take a big win to change the pundits' predictions of Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex going for a championship at Homestead, but anything is possible among the final eight drivers.
Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart said, will continue to work as an organization with its focus on earning Ford its first manufacturer title since 2004.
"Helping each other has been the key all year," he added. "Those guys have been helping each other all season and that's what got us here. You don't mess up the system that got us here."
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