NASCAR: Retiring Almirola set for final ride at Pocono

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Jul. 17—Aric Almirola is on the final laps of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

The 38-year-old driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford is retiring after the season to spend more time with his family. So, next Sunday's Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway will be the final time he competes at 2.5-mile track at Long Pond.

In 19 career starts there, Almirola has two top-five and four top-10 finishes with his best effort being a third place in the first race in 2020. He also placed fourth in the 2010 Trucks Series race and 11th in the 2016 Xfinity Series race.

"Pocono is a very unique race track with three very unique corners and the long straightaway. It's a challenge for the engineers to set the car up and a challenge for the drivers to figure out how to manipulate the car through each corner," Almirola said. "It's a place I've always enjoyed going, I get excited about going there. We recently did a Goodyear tire test up there and had a great test. So I'm looking forward to coming to Pocono and hopefully having a strong run."

He certainly can use one.

Through 19 races this season, despite completing all but five of the 4,972 laps run, Almirola has just a pair of fifth places at Daytona and Gateway and six top-10 finishes. He is 12th in the point standings.

It's been a good season, Almirola said, but not great. If ever there has been a season to need to be great, it is this one.

NASCAR's new Next Gen car has created parity. There have been 13 winners, which means only three spots for the playoffs remain based on points. Almirola is 42 points below the cutoff line with seven races left in the regular season.

"It's an unprecedented year from that standpoint where currently you've got to be eighth in points to be in playoff contention," Almirola said. "So we find ourselves in a situation where we feel like we have to win."

Trying to learn the new car is also a challenge, Almirola said.

"It's new and there's some kinks that all the race teams and engineers have been working really hard to understand and figure out what this car wants and needs to make it go fast," he said. "The teams that figure it out each weekend are the teams you see have success. But each weekend is a new weekend, a different weekend and we've seen that's what's created so much drama. No one team has got it figured out each weekend."

Almirola made the Cup Series playoffs five times, including each of the past four seasons.

"Winning races is important, but making the playoffs is the only way to go race for a championship," Almirola said. "That's something I've always looked at as the goal. Winning races along the way is a part of accomplishing the goal. The ultimate goal is to be a champion of the sport. Making the playoffs is the No. 1 goal every single year when we get ready to go to Daytona to start the season."

In 15 seasons and 407 Cup races, Almirola has three wins, 28 top-five and 90 top-10 finishes. His first victory came in July 2014 at Daytona driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. He also won at Talladega in October 2018 and at New Hampshire last season with Stewart-Hass Racing.

"The wins and success and all those things are great, but to be honest that's somewhat expected when you become a professional. You're expected to do your best," Almirola said. "Sure, the success is wonderful and all that stuff, but that comes and goes. But the relationships I've built will last far beyond my career. That is something I am most proud of — the genuine relationships I've built because of being a racecar driver."

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