Aric Almirola doesn’t pretend to be a road course ringer. That’s why Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a race that he just hopes to bring his No. 10 Ford home unscathed.
See, heading into this weekend’s race, Almirola sits as the top wildcard driver in the playoff standings. He leads the cutoff spot by 94. He’d like to minimize the trouble this weekend in Watkins Glen so he can easily stake into the playoffs come September.
“Road-course racing has been arguably my Achilles heel throughout my career, and I don’t claim to be very good at road-course racing at all,” Almirola said ahead of this weekend’s race. “I have always worked really hard at it to try and be better. As a racecar driver, you want to be versatile. You want to be able to contend for wins on superspeedways and intermediate tracks and short tracks – challenging tracks and road-course tracks. You don’t want to be weak in any one area.”
Almirola, notes that he’s put a lot of effort into making himself a better race car driver on road courses as the NASCAR schedule visits three of them each year now. With where they are on the schedule the importance to perform on them is arguably greater now than ever before. That’s paid off with two straight top 10 finishes in Sonoma.
“For me, it has been a big challenge to conquer road-course racing,” Almirola continued. “I have put a lot of effort into this year to be a better road-course racer and had a lot of help with it. With Ford, they have helped me a lot with a lot of time in the simulator with our race team at Stewart-Haas Racing, and they’ve provided a lot of data to look at and a lot of things to study. I got my second top-10 on a road course out at Sonoma and had a really good run and was really fast. Same thing going into Watkins Glen. I have worked really hard studying data and getting ready in the Ford simulator. We are fortunate enough to have Go Bowling on the car for the weekend because it is the Go Bowling weekend at The Glen. I feel that will help me get in a rhythm for Sunday and hopefully that will pay off for Sunday at Watkins Glen. Road-course racing is definitely not something that I am overly comfortable with, or something I claim to be good at by any means, but through hard work I am trying to get a lot better at it and I feel like I have.”
The 2.45-mile, seven-turn circuit is located in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York and is quite different from Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, the season’s first road-course stop each June.
“Watkins Glen is a beast of its own,” Almirola said. “We go to Sonoma, which is also a road course but much more like Martinsville, where it’s very slow, very technical and you struggle for grip. Then you go to Watkins Glen, that’s like a mile-and-a-half racetrack for road courses. It’s very fast and aero-dependent. I can’t stress how fast that racetrack is. It’s totally different than Sonoma.”
Last year at The Glen was a doubleheader weekend for Almirola, who competed in both the Cup Series and Xfinity Series races. He earned his first Watkins Glen Xfinity Series top-five, his previous best Xfinity finish there being eighth in 2011. He finished 22nd in last year’s Cup Series race.
In the days leading into each race weekend, Almirola focuses on improving his physical abilities and is well prepared for races where drivers are faced with high G-forces, like Watkins Glen.
“It takes a different technique,” he said. “From the driver standpoint, it’s very aggressive and taxing on the body. There are a lot of G-forces (at Watkins Glen) compared to Sonoma, and we’re doing some heavy braking in several different spots on the track. Going through the esses, you try and run through there wide open and the car is very sketchy trying to go up through there at 150 to 160 miles per hour. It’s fun and very challenging.”
In 21 Cup Series starts this year, Almirola has one pole, one top-five finish, 10 top-10s and has led 112 laps. In 301 career starts, Almirola has two wins, two poles, 16 top-five finishes, 59 top-10s and 469 laps led. Almirola has qualified on the front row six times this season – one pole and five outside-front-row starts.