Sunday’s Geico 400 hadn’t even started yet and Aric Almirola had already put sponsor Farmland in the spotlight by qualifying his No. 43 Ford on the outside pole. Leading the field to green with pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson, Almirola was fast from the start, passing Johnson to lead three laps and collect a bonus point. Johnson then reclaimed the lead and Almirola settled into the top five, where he stayed and ran strong until the team’s first green-flag pit stop. Bringing the Farmland Ford down pit road on Lap 44, Almirola told new crew chief Todd Parrott that his car was a little tight in the center and loose off the corners. Parrott responded with wedge and air pressure adjustments, along with four fresh tires and fuel, and sent his driver back on track to continue the impressive run he had started.
Unfortunately, the team received word from NASCAR that Almirola would have to do a pass-through penalty due to what was ruled an uncontrolled tire in the pit during his first stop. After serving the penalty, Almirola returned to the track in 30th and a lap down. Meanwhile, RPM operations director Sammy Johns appealed to NASCAR that the infraction never happened, reviewing the video replay with officials at the team’s pit box. Sixteen laps later, when the caution flag flew for the first time for debris, NASCAR announced that they had indeed been mistaken and they granted Almirola his lap back that he lost because of the penalty.
But while he was able to cycle around and return to the lead lap, he did not regain all the ground he lost serving the penalty. Instead of being in the top five, Almirola restarted 21st after pitting under the caution for tires, fuel and a wedge adjustment. The setback would prove to be a game-changer for the Farmland Ford team.
As Almirola continued to run fast laps, the team continued to tweak the handling of their car. Coming in for their third pit stop of the day on Lap 102, Almirola received more chassis and air pressure adjustments to help him through the turns. Talking under the caution laps, the driver and his crew chief agreed they had a fast car, but that it was difficult to advance through the “dirty” air in the middle of the pack. Despite the challenging situation, Almirola restarted in 20th determined to regain as much ground as he could in his fast Fusion.
He maintained his place around the top-20 mark for the next 50-plus laps. By Lap 171, he found that the inside line around the track was the path for passing and was able to climb the board up to 16th. And by the fourth caution of the race on Lap 187, the driver told Parrott his car was the best it had been all afternoon. He did say that his Farmland Ford was still a bit tight, so his crew chief called him down pit road during the caution for wedge and track bar adjustments, along with four fresh Goodyears and a full tank of Sunoco fuel. The quick stop by the No. 43 crew put Almirola in 14th for the ensuing restart and poised to make a late charge after working so hard to regain lost ground all afternoon.
He climbed as high as 13th before the final round of green-flag pit stops began with about 40 laps to go in the 267-lap event. The driver brought his car down pit road on Lap 229 for a final set of tires and tank of fuel to bring him home. As he rejoined the field after his stop in the 16th position, he immediately reported that his car was suddenly loose and difficult to handle – a condition that made it challenging to keep up the pace he’d been running all day and make a final push forward. With no additional opportunity to come to pit road in the remaining laps, he held his Farmland Ford steady, dropping back one position to cross the finish line in 17th.
He remains 22nd in the driver point standings heading into next week’s Loudon race.
Comments from Almirola after Chicago: “That penalty was very bizarre. That pretty much ruined our day. It was extremely tough to pass today. Track position was everything. To be running fourth and get a pass-through penalty and lose a lap and then have them tell you that they are sorry and give you your lap back, but you are on the tail end of the lead lap so you go from running fourth to the back. They obviously were in the wrong because they fixed it and gave us our lap back, but it is disappointing.
“All in all it was a good day, though. I am proud of everyone on my new team. Todd Parrott and all the guys did a great job. Our Farmland Ford was so fast at the beginning of the race and we ran like we should have. I was proud of that. If we can have a car that good in the first race we run together, I’m looking forward to what we can do the rest of the remaining races.”