Ste­wart-Haas aim­ing to cap­ture round of 8

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JENNA FRYER

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 Ste­wartHaas 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 starstud­ded lineup that in- cludes 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 so­called “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.

STEVE HELBER AP

Ste­wart-Haas team owner Tony Ste­wart re­placed the now-re­tired Dan­ica Pa­trick in the No. 10 car with Aric Almirola, who is in the fi­nal eight of the NASCAR play­offs en­ter­ing Sun­day’s race at Martinsville.

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