Final impressions are lasting ones.
Given the resources of the Stewart-Haas Racing organization and Aric Almirola’s skill, he should be ranked among the top 10 for 2020. We just can’t do it because it is impossible to ignore what happened in the final 18 races of 2019.
Almirola slowly, steadily, and assuredly lost momentum as the season progressed. The Daytona 500 is its own entity. It has no relevance as a predictive factor for anything later in the year except (maybe) other aero-restricted superspeedways, so one can easily ignore Almirola’s crash-induced 32nd-place finish in the season-opener.
His season started the next week at Atlanta and showed a lot of promise. Almirola won the pole for the QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta and finished eighth. That kicked off a six-race streak of top-10s with a high of fourth in the TicketGuardian 500k at Phoenix.
Almirola had back-to-back disappointments on short tracks in the next two weeks, but then – over the course of the next 13 weeks – he finished between ninth and 17th. Not great, but not bad. To that point in the season, he finished worse than 20th only three times, including crash-marred races at Daytona and Bristol.
In the final 14 races of the season, Almirola earned only two top-10s. He finished outside of the top 20 on six occasions. Four of these poor showings came in the final five weeks. His last two races ended in 22nd-place results at Phoenix and Homestead.
Almirola has carried that weight since mid-November and he has one more month to go to think about it. He also has the added burden of the knowledge of how SHR ran in the second half of the season. With the exception of Kevin Harvick, none of his teammates performed particularly well. They lost a driver with only one year’s seniority with the team and he is being replaced by the rookie Cole Custer – who although he has shown a lot promise, will probably not add much to the organization’s race notebook.
The question for Almirola is whether he should be handicapped based on potential or experience.
Yes, by the time the Daytona 500 rolls around he will have had three months to reflect on the end of the 2019 season – but that can either be demoralizing or it can be galvanizing.
The 2020 season will be a test of Almirola’s character. Given the speed with which he came out of the gates last year, fantasy owners should not be surprised if he is a good value in the first 10 weeks. Be prepared to jump on his bandwagon. Last year, his top-10s became more sporadic in early summer; that could happen again. There will be no reason to panic if that happens since he could still record low-teens finishes in his less-impressive weeks.
Once the series hits the 4th of July weekend at Indy, players will want to take a moment and reassess Almirola. If he has a ton of momentum, keep activating him on unrestricted, intermediate speedways. If he has started to sputter like he did in 2019, take the opportunity to rest him for a few races and see if his pattern repeats itself.
There are four races that should be earmarked for 2020: While they are unpredictable, Almirola seems to have a knack on the drafting speedways. He swept the top five in three starts in 2017 (having missed Daytona 2 to injury), he finished 11th or better in three races in 2018, and last year posted three top-10s in four races. The Daytona 500 and 2018’s Coke Zero 400 are outliers that can be ignored in light of the weight of the rest of the schedule.
Three Best Tracks
Talladega (15.4 in 21 attempts)
Richmond (16.0 in 16)
Dover (16.3 in 15)
Three Worst Tracks
Bristol (25.8 in 22)
Auto Club (24.4 in 12)
Pocono (23.7 in 15)
Victories: None, Best Finish of second (Texas 2)
Top-fives: 3 (.083)
Top-10s: 12 (.333)
Top-15s: 21 (.583)
2019 Finishes at or above rank = 21 (58.3%)
2020 Driver Profiles:
15. Kurt Busch
16. Christopher Bell
17. Ryan Newman
18. Matt DiBenedetto
19. Jimmie Johnson
20. Tyler Reddick
21. Chris Buescher
22. Cole Custer
23. Austin Dillon
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
25. Ryan Preece
26. Ty Dillon
27. Bubba Wallace
28. Michael McDowell
29. Ross Chastain
30. Daniel Suarez