Aric Almirola started Sunday’s race from the 18th position with the plan to be aggressive and run up front for sponsor Gwaltney. Settling into the low line in the early laps of the race with teammate Ambrose, he found that the draft was not revealing one clear path to the front.
An early four-car accident on Lap 17 forced Almirola to take evasive action onto the track apron and, while he avoided contact, he reported to crew chief Todd Parrott that he hit the apron banking hard. Parrott called his driver to pit road for a two-tire stop and to give the No. 43 Gwaltney Ford a quick once-over to make sure there was no damage to the splitter.
Assured his Ford Fusion was good to go, Almirola returned to the track for a Lap 21 restart in 14th. Like his teammate, the driver tried jumping into the high, middle and low lines to look for an advantage. He seemed to find his best success on the bottom, pushing his way to the second position by Lap 54.
After a routine green-flag stop on Lap 59, a long green-flag run gave Almirola a good chance to assess how his car handled in different lines and in varying ranges of proximity with other cars. The assessment led to a wedge adjustment on the team’s next stop on Lap 99 as the track went under its second caution.
As the field returned to green on Lap 103 with the Gwaltney Ford lined up 11th, Almirola once again settled in to the bottom line and pushed toward the head of the pack. The next 35 laps showed Almirola staking his claim within the top 10, surging once again as high as second.
A debris caution on Lap 138 gave the team a chance to make final chassis adjustments and pack the gas tank with as much fuel as they could for the final run. With the way Almirola had been running all day, a top 10, top-five and even a win seemed within reach.
As the 43 team restarted in ninth, the Talladega “chess match” continued for the next 40 laps, with drivers trying to make the right lateral moves to get in the fastest lane. And then, a late caution with five scheduled laps to go set up the field for a final dash.
Almirola was in sixth and knew his car was capable of getting to the front and a possible trip to Victory Lane. As the field restarted for a green-white-checkered flag finish, the No. 43 pushed up to fourth on the first lap before disaster hit on the final lap. “The Big One” struck as the field headed for the checkers, with leader Tony Stewart setting off a 24-car wreck that pancaked Almirola up into the wall.
When the smoke cleared and Matt Kenseth had claimed victory, Almirola tried to refire his car but had too much damage to make it back to the garage. He was transported to the infield care center where he was evaluated and released.
NASCAR scored Almirola with a 19th-place result, moving him up one spot in the driver standings to 21st.
Comments from Almirola after Talladega: “It’s pretty disappointing when you have a really strong car all day and have a shot at a top-five, or even a win, and the whole effort gets wiped out on the last lap. Our Gwaltney Ford was working really well in the draft and we showed we could push to the front, and push others to the front. I’m disappointed for my guys with all the work they put into giving me a fast car. But we’re headed back to Charlotte next — it’s home and it’s where we earned the pole in the spring. So we’re looking forward to bouncing back.”