What started playing out to be an uneventful Sprint Cup race with lengthy green-flag runs finished up as a wreckfest, with Aric Almirola fighting for a top-20 finish despite incurring damages resulting from other drivers’ actions.
Almirola started Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 near the front after a fast qualifying effort put his Farmland Ford fifth on the grid. After initially climbing two positions, the No. 43 dropped back a few spots but maintained a hold on a top-10 spot for the first 125 laps of the race. During the team’s first two pit stops, crew chief Todd Parrott and the No. 43 crew worked to tighten up the car on entry to the turns and loosen it up through the center and exit.
By Almirola’s third pit stop, under a debris caution on Lap 167, he was in eighth and running fast laps, often as fast as the race leader. With tire wear not showing to be an issue for the team, Parrott made the call for a two-tire stop, allowing Almirola to return to the track in fifth. Unfortunately, the car was still hard to turn, and the difficult handling had him dropped back to 15th by the next caution on Lap 234.
Bringing his driver to the pits for the fourth time, Parrott decided to make a suspension adjustment on the left front bump stop, along with a track bar change, four tires and fuel. The changes seemed to help, as the Farmland Fusion took off from 14th on the restart up to 10th within 11 laps. But soon the previous handling issues returned, with Almirola once again reporting he was loose going into the turns and tight through the center.
On Lap 280, Almirola suffered his first incident of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Tony Stewart clipped the No. 43′s right front fender trying to avoid another car. Stewart spun onto the apron, bringing out the day’s sixth caution flag. Deciding the damage didn’t require immediate repairs, the team kept Almirola on track to restart in 14th.
But the bigger incident – and the one that would really affect Almirola’s result on the day – came as the field was about to take the white flag for the final lap of the race. On Lap 310, Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer as payback for an earlier run-in, causing a multi-car pile-up with Almirola as one of the victims. While his Farmland Ford suffered significant damage, he was able to keep the car rolling under caution and was preparing to bring the car to the pits when NASCAR red-flagged the race to clean up the track.
Fifteen minutes later when the field was restarted under a yellow flag, Almirola rolled to pit road for repairs. The No. 43 team patched up their car as best they could to get through the upcoming green-white-checkered flag finish.
Back on track in 17th and the last car on the lead lap, Almirola took the green flag in his heavily damaged car. He was able to avoid the race’s final multi-car incident on the white-flag lap as several cars slid through oil dropped from the spinning car of Danica Patrick. He gained one additional position, crossing the line in 16th.
Comments from Almirola after Phoenix: “We started out really, really good and then took two tires on one of those stops and started going backwards. Our car never handled the same after that and we just lost some track position, so it’s disappointing. We’ll keep going. We’re still running good. We have to look at the positives and the positive was we qualified fifth and had a really good Farmland Fusion in the beginning of the race.”