When Aric Almirola climbed out of his No. 43 Ford Fusion during the MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet Sunday, it was probably obvious what he was about to say.
“I’ve never been so heartbroken — ever,” Almirola said. “To be running that good with (just) over 30 laps to go ... I’ve been saying all week that we can’t have a big mistake.”
The “mistake” was a blown engine with 36 laps to go for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver. Almirola was running sixth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup opener — Almirola’s first appearance in NASCAR’s playoffs — when the engine blew up.
With the setback, it will be more of a challenge for Almirola to advance to the Contender Round of 12 drivers in two weeks.
“Our Ford Fusion was running really fast and all we had to do was run in the top 10 and it would guarantee running into the next round,” Almirola said. “But this puts us in a huge hole going into Loudon (New Hampshire) and Dover (Delaware).”
Almirola got into the Chase after winning the rain-shortened July race at Daytona. It was his only victory of the season, but Almirola posted back-to-back top-10 finishes in Atlanta (ninth) and Richmond (10th) that helped bring some momentum into the 16-driver Challenger Round of the Chase.
The blown engine at Chicagoland forced Almirola to finish 41st. He started 23rd, but drove through the field to get up to 11th at lap 150 before landing in the sixth spot at lap 195.
Almirola even went as high as fifth with about 78 laps to go, before going back to sixth when a caution came out for Carl Edwards’ blown left rear tire.
And that’s when the engine started to go south. Almirola pitted and his crew started pushing the car back to the garage area. Almirola said this was the first engine problem for him at RPM.
“We rarely have any engine issues at all,” Almirola said. “We were running so fast.”
Petty showed his support for Almirola, putting his arm around the driver when Almirola climbed out of the car.
Almirola is one of those Chase drivers that many consider an underdog, having never made the Chase before this season.
“We know we are capable of running in the top 10,” Almirola said. “Everyone else might not think so, and the rest of the world thinks we are underdogs and we will gladly accept that tag. But what we’ve shown today and the last two weeks is exactly what we are capable of.”
Going into Loudon next week, Almirola knows what his RPM team has to do. He’s 16th in the point standings, 52 behind leader Brad Keselowski and 14 behind Jeff Gordon.
“We have to win,” he said. “That is it. There is no other option. We have to go and figure out how we can win one of the next two races.
“We will go to Loudon with our heads held high, and try to rebound from this.”