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|WINNERS NOT ADDING UP
|THE 600 IS STILL A CROWN JEWEL
|NEXT TWO WEEKS COULD BE TOO GOOD
|WALTRIP A TWO-WAY HALL OF FAMER
Glad to be Wrong
Most times none of us wants to be wrong. It doesn't make us happy or feel very smart. But when it comes to Aric Almirola and his improbable title chase, I'm glad to say he's proved me wrong.
We were on the air with PRN during the Xfinity Series shootout at Las Vegas when Doug Rice and I got talking about the race the next day that would kick off the Monster Energy Cup Series Playoff. He asked me who I thought would be eliminated in round one? I looked at the list of 16 drivers and threw out two names quickly, one disbelievingly, and one with a bit of hesitation.
Given their inconsistency, I had Alex Bowman and Austin Dillon as my first two. The next guy I mentioned I thought "how crazy is this?", but I threw Jimmie Johnson into the hat. I didn't see any miraculous 10-race run this time for the seven-time champion. He wasn't all that competitive in the opening 26 events and he had clearly lost the golden horseshoe.
Then, it came down to a decision between Denny Hamlin and Almirola. Given Hamlin's playoff pedigree, and some of the recent speed he had shown, I chose him over Aric, who I thought had the car to make it into the second round, but his inexperience and that of his team gave me doubts. Later that day, I found out on NBC Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had picked the same four, but that didn't stop me from thinking gosh I hope those guys don't get mad at me and, not rooting against anyone, wanted those four to make me look bad.
I will confess the Almirola pick gave me nagging doubts. I had the other three Stewart-Haas Racing Ford's moving on and he had shown flashes of the same kind of speed as Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch. Still, the fact Almirola had come close to getting his second career Cup win a number of times this year and it just didn't happen had me hesitant. It was clear the talent and the car were there, but, for whatever reason, the big break through victory continued to elude the 34-year-old from Tampa.
With strong top-10 runs at Las Vegas and Dover along with a 19th place run on Charlotte Motor Speedway's Roval, Almirola not only made it into round two, but did it comfortably. Making the round of eight, however, seemed to be an opportunity too painful to achieve.
Almirola had already proved me wrong once, and he was about to do it again.
A week after a devastating, demoralizing, and potentially destructive loss at Dover, Almirola captured a much-deserved checkered flag. By taking down Talladega, he not only ended a 149-race losing drought, dating back to Daytona July 2014, but kept his championship aspirations alive by guaranteeing his spot in round three.
"Honestly, I feel like we're exceeding expectations," Almirola said with a huge smile. "I feel like we're exceeding your expectations, the media. I feel like we're exceeding probably even Tony Stewart and Gene Haas' expectations. I went into this year feeling like if we could run top 15, be consistent, not make any mistakes all year long, we could maybe make the Playoffs. That was a goal for us."
"I've got a new team. I'm new to the organization. My crew chief, Johnny (Klausmeier), his first year being a crew chief. We have a lot of young guys on our team. I really feel like we're built to grow. I feel like we haven't even reached max potential. I feel like there's so much more room to grow for us, to get better. That's what is exciting for me to see. We're not at the ceiling yet. We're young and new in this whole team. So, I feel like we're way ahead of our expectations."
Now, what's next? All year we've been trying to figure out who will be the fourth guy to join "The Big 3" at Homestead. Could it be Almirola? That's no longer a totally foolish notion. At the beginning of the Playoff the easy answer appeared to be Brad Keselowski. He, though, is heading into the cut-off race at Kansas Speedway this weekend 18 points below the cut-line and in real danger of not making round three. Astonishingly, one of "The Big 3" Martin Truex, Jr. is on the bubble.
This is what's so cool about a playoff in NASCAR. How many times have we seen in other sports underdogs overperform or come up large in the clutch to eliminate a heavily favored foe? There are no guarantees. There's no way of knowing who's going to get a little luck at a big moment. There's also no way of knowing who's going to rise the occasion and compete at a level that couldn't even be imagined before the whistle blew, the umpire yelled "play ball" or the green flag waved.
As Almirola has pointed out from this point on he's got nothing to lose and unshackled from the high pressure that goes with high expectations, has the speed, the team, and the confidence to continue this stunning run.
In Las Vegas parlance he's playing with house money and I'm no longer willing to bet against him.