Aric Almirola was good – very good – Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway but unfortunately he needed to be great.
Almirola, in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, was on pace for one of the best performances of his NASCAR career on Sunday – he collected his first stage victory and he led more laps (70) than in his previous five seasons combined (40).
Almirola even held his own going toe-to-toe with his teammate Kevin Harvick, who shares the lead with five victories in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season.
But Stage 2 in the Overton’s 400 was when the trouble started for the No. 10 Ford.
Loose wheel sets him back
After retaking the lead and trying to hold off Harvick, Almirola reported a bad vibration and was forced to make a green-flag pit stop on Lap 141 of 267 for what turned out to be a loose wheel.
He recovered and returned to the lead lap in the final stage trying to claw his way back up into contention when disaster struck again – he was forced to pit on Lap 212 under green for yet another loose wheel.
“Our car was super-fast especially out in clean air. It was incredibly fast. We just have to execute, and we have to put a whole race together,” Almirola said. “That is the difference between being good and being great. We are capable of winning, and we showed it today.
“We have speed, we are bringing incredible race cars to the race track, and we just have to put a whole day together. We have to be flawless on pit road, and I have to do my part, too. Today we just had two loose wheels on two separate instances, and you can’t have that, especially in races like this that go green forever.”
Almirola returned to the field after the second loose wheel one lap down in the 25th position. Unfortunately, a long green-flag run ended the race, leaving Almirola trapped a lap down and with his second-worst finish of the season (25th). He dropped one spot to 11th in the series standings.
“I am really frustrated, but the good news is that our cars are fast. We can build on that,” he said. “We are going to win a race. I guarantee you we are going to win a race.
“We have to be perfect to do it, though.”