A Whirlwind Week For Almirola, Smith, Richard Petty Motorsports Featured

A Whirlwind Week For Almirola, Smith, Richard Petty Motorsports Getty Images for NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C— Following a violent crash at Kansas Speedway on lap 199, Aric Almirola made the trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway to talk about his week following a T5 vertebrae compression fracture. Although it wasn’t in a driver’s suit, Almirola was grateful to be at the racetrack.

“I’m glad to be here, too.  I wish I was sitting here in a driver’s uniform, but I’m not. First and foremost, I want to thank God.  I didn’t’ think I was lucky.  I was pretty upset in the moment and then after meeting with doctors in Kansas and Charlotte I realized how fortunate I was.  I want to thank the Good Lord for looking out for me,” said Almirola in his opening statements on Friday. 

While walking through the accident, Almirola stated he was a full two seconds behind the accident. He could have missed the wreck, but was committed to the very outside lane. He saw the cars of Danica Patrick and Joey Logano come up the track abruptly into his lane and into the catch fence. While trying to avoid the accident, his car went loose hitting some oil and water resulting in being unable to steer the car.

“I felt like from that point my car was on railroad tracks and I was just headed straight for the wreck.  There was nothing I could do.  I’ve been doing this for a  long time and I feel like I’ve always been able to miss wrecks, especially from that far back,” said Almirola.

Almirola knew that the wreck was coming and braced for impact. At the moment of impact, Almirola felt a sharp pain in his back; A moment he said “felt like somebody stuck a knife in my back.” He then realized his car was airborne because he could see the asphalt. That “knife in my back” moment was made worse when he landed because it felt like “somebody took that knife and just twisted it up in my back.”

Almirola is scheduled to be out of the car for eight to 12 weeks. He is not “happy” about it, but does want to make sure that it is properly healed before getting back in the car.

“Getting back in a race car two weeks too soon is just gonna add two more starts to my start column and the stat book, but if I were to get in another similar accident and not be properly healed, you’re talking about potentially being paralyzed from the belly button down, so I’m not gonna risk that,” said Almirola. “I’ve got a lot of baseball to play with my son and I’d like to dance with my daughter one day at her wedding, so I’m not gonna risk it.  Whenever the doctors clear me, I’ll be ready to get back in a race car.”

With the timetable of return being eight to 12 weeks, Almirola will be unable to make the Playoffs in September. Almirola will not use that as an incentive to get back in the car as quickly as possible.

“I think the incentive to make sure that I can run around in my front yard with my kids is enough for me to not rush back.  I’m gonna listen to the doctors.  I’m young.  I’ve got a lot of life ahead of me.  I’ve got a four year old and a three year old at home,” Almirola stated. “I’m not gonna do anything stupid to rush myself back in a race car and risk not being able to feel anything from my belly button down for the rest of my life.  That’s most important to me.  Being out 8-12 weeks and not having a chance at the Playoffs, obviously that stinks, especially coming off Talladega.”

William Heisel, Director of OrthCarolina Motorsports, said Almirola’s injury was worse than recent injuries of Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin and explained what Almirola will have to go through.

“This fracture is at a higher level than the injuries that Denny sustained or that Tony sustained.  This fracture though has outstanding healing potential.  Because of the location it’s a very stable fracture from the standpoint that the ligaments that connect the bones are all intact and they’re all doing well based on the imaging studies that we’ve obtained so far, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Heisel. “The bone is, for lack of a better term, crunched and it’s something that first and foremost we’ve got to get some of the edema or some of the blood out of the bone and that is something that is a time phenomenon as much as anything.  And then we have a lot of work to do from a physical therapy standpoint.  That days that Aric is not available to move around because of the pain and because of the guarding are days that he’s not using those muscles fully and we’re going to have to rehabilitate those.  So there’s definitively some physical therapy to come.  We want to deal with the acute pain phase first and foremost.  Aric alluded to the brace and this is a fracture that we don’t need a brace in this case because his rib cage effectively works as a brace.  The term that we use is the rib cage works effectively as an external fixation device because it connects to the spine and connects to the sternum, so the location of it as well also facilitates the healing close to the heart and close to the lungs.”

For Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), the process of working to find a replacement driver for the duration of Almirola’s absences is still “a work in progress”, according to Brian Moffitt, Chief Executive Officer for RPM. 

“We’re working with our partners.  The process was we wanted to make sure that Aric was OK when this happened.  Our worries were for him and what the future was gonna be and Janice and the kids.  We were mainly concerned about Aric when it happened.  We have a protocol that we go by and having Aric and Janice and all of our thoughts and prayers were first and foremost,” said Moffitt. “The process that we had was when we got back to North Carolina the King and Drew and Aric and I sat down and came up with a list of people after we knew what the diagnosis was and we’re still working through that with our partners.  As soon as we know for the future we’ll be letting you guys know that, but right now we’re thrilled that Regan’s going to be in the car for this weekend.”

Moffitt mentioned that the team wanted a “Cup driver for this situation and Regan stepped in and we feel like he’s gonna bring the car home safe and consistency is what we were looking for and he has that type of record.  He has that type of record.  He drives a lot like Aric and that’s what helped us come to this conclusion.”

This week has been a whirlwind for Regan Smith.  Smith received a call from RPM on Wednesday morning asking if he would be able to drive the car this weekend. Smith quickly responded with “absolutely” before getting everything ready for this weekend.

“I’m focused on this weekend right now and we’re going to do the best we can for their partners and for their team this weekend and see how things progress going forward, but I’m gonna focus on this weekend and do a good job for them this weekend,” said Smith outside the hauler.

 Smith has numerous experiences as a replacement driver. Smith has replaced Stewart, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kyle Larson before this weekend. Although he does not have a full time ride in Cup, Smith runs in the Camping World Truck Series for RBR Enterprises. Smith has 211 starts in Cup with one win, four top-five finishes, and 13 top-10’s.

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Caleb Whisler

I am 19 years old from Atlanta, GA. I have been following motorsports since I was born. Motorsports has been "passed down" in my family. I am named after NASCAR Hall of Famer, William Caleb Yarborough, also known as Cale. Growing up in the southeast, racing was something that was a Sunday tradition after church. What an honor it is to share that passion with others.