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.
Buescher would receive the free pass when Chase Elliott got into Joey Logano through the Tunnel Turn. When other drivers didn't pit, the Front Row Motorsports team did and went the remaining 31 laps on fuel.
On Lap 132, NASCAR threw the caution for fog as it covered the entire 2.5-mile race track. The next six laps were spent under the caution flag before the red flag was thrown, waiting over an hour and a half before calling the race due to fog, handing Buescher his first career victory.
"We're sitting there on pit road, kind of just waiting for everything to happen the way that it was going to," Buescher said of waiting over an hour for the victory. "We've had some awful luck this year and a lot of things not go our way and I tried not to get my hopes up because I knew just as soon as I did, the fog would have rolled back out and we would have been restarting again."
Picking up the victory, Buescher sits 31st in the standings, six points behind David Ragan. In order to make the Chase, the No. 34 team will need to pick up those points. It is the second career victory for Front Row Motorsports.
After struggling early on in the race, Brad Keselowski finished second. The No. 2 car was the first car on the track that had pitted and if the race would have remained green would have caught Buescher in the next handful of laps.
"Definitely an odd weekend," Keselowski said of his race. "We were really competitive this weekend. I'm really proud that we were running up front. I thought that there were two or three cars that were really strong and we were one of them."
Finding a four leaf clover during the pre-race, Regan Smith lucked into a third-place finish, also staying out on fuel. The finish ties the best-career finish by Tommy Baldwin Racing at Talladega in the fall of 2011.
"This is a big deal for this team," Smith said of his finish. "Tommy has really worked hard over the years at this and we've got to take opportunities when they present themselves and today was a day that opportunity presented. I'm proud of them for taking the chance doing the fuel-mileage deal and do what we did."
Arguably having the fastest car in Pocono, Kevin Harvick came home fourth, leading seven laps. His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart rounded out the top five.
Leading 37 laps, Kyle Larson spent the most time out front on Monday. This was yet again a win that got away from the third year driver as he finished sixth on the afternoon.
A trio of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers lined up positions seven through nine with Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. June winner, Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10. xdsxsx
For much of the day it looked like Austin Dillon had the car to beat as on two separate occasions the No. 3 car raced its way to the lead, leading three laps. During the last pit stop, a lug nut got hung on the right rear tire, slowing the pit stop.
Kasey Kahne was the highest finishing driver from the Hendrick Motorsports stable in 15th. This marks the fourth time in the last six events that a Hendrick team has failed to post a top-10 finish.
In his return to Pocono, Jeff Gordon will go home with a 27th-place effort after a seat belt came loose under the green flag.
Pre-race favorite, Martin Truex, Jr. spent the first 16 laps out front prior to the competition caution. The pole-sitter cut a tire on the lap following the resuming restart. Over the rest of the race, the No. 78 car cut two more tires, finishing 38th.
After finishing eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500 the team has struggled. The organization has shown speed, but haven't quite put the finishes together to compete with the top teams.
After 12 races, Smith sits 32nd in Sprint Cup points after a blown engine in Dover. However, the 32-year-old is happy with where the team is at, knowing that there are good days right around the corner.
Dustin Albino: How do you feel the season has gone so far?
Regan Smith: I feel like we’ve done some things really good. I think the best thing is we haven’t left a racetrack with a notebook that is considerably bigger than what we’ve got. We’ve had some speed at a lot of the racetracks and if we could just clean some things up then we should legitimately be running 20th to 24th every week in the races. We’ve got to get better at qualifying and a couple of little things here and there. The short tracks are something that we’ve kind of highlighted as more of a struggle for us. I think we’ve come along quick and I think we are only a couple of small mistakes and a couple of cleaning up different areas away from really being happy with where we are at.
Albino: How do you improve on that?
Smith: Qualifying is going to help. We’ve had a little bit of an issue in traffic on restarts with our car having a bigger balance shift than what we need. We’ve got to look at that and work on that a little bit and outside of that it’s just continuing to build that notebook. We’re going back to places for a second time and say ‘this is what we did last time.’ Coming to places for the second time around we should be better. We should be able to say ‘hey this is what we learned and this is what we need to improve on.’ We will have a whole other set of things the second time around that we will need to highlight and say these are the next things we’ve got to work on. Its constant building and addressing different issues that arrive until you get through all of the things that maybe are the quick ones that you can adjust and then you go to the things that are a little more fine detailed and fine tuned.
Albino: How has the new aero package affected you?
Smith: Well, it hasn’t really affected me much at all because I don’t know what the old one felt like that much. From that standpoint I don’t know. I know what the cars felt like at the beginning of last year because I did a couple of races, but to me they don’t feel a whole lot different. It might be because of the tire at the time or because the teams adjusted and adapted. I don’t think it’s been a huge change. I do think what has happened is you can run closer together, which has allowed more passing because now we have a softer tire. You keep hearing the drivers be happy about the racetrack. You can pass a little bit easier than you could in the past. There are some tracks that it’s been a little bit of a similar struggle. Kansas, for example, was a similar struggle, where it was hard to pass and you could run up next to the wall and we can move around because the tire is different. That’s because of the aero package.
Albino: How much does it put back into the drivers hands versus the COT or even last year?
Smith: It’s a lot different. You can’t even really compare it to that now. With that said there are a lot of advancements that have been made to the racecar itself and safety and different areas with that particular car are still there. The chassis is still the same. There are a lot of things that are really similar. There are a lot of things that are very similar other than what it looks like on the outside of the car. It’s a tough comparison to make. That particular part of our racecar was a little bit of a mistake and that’s been acknowledged at this point. It’s been corrected and we’ve moved on.
Albino: Do you feel like the team has overachieved at all following your Daytona run?
Smith: I think there’s weeks that we have and I think there’s weeks that we walk away thinking we should have done better. We are capable of more than that. The thing that’s really tough to put on a piece of paper is where we should or shouldn’t be as a small team. There’s areas where there are some weaknesses. We don’t have four teams in the same shop that are comparing stuff. We’re relatively a small group in terms of people and numbers. I think that what we do a particularly good job of is we pull on the rope equally as hard. Everybody is racers and we dig in. It’s not like we have to work crazy hours because we have less people. We get more done and we need to be productive because of that.
Albino: How many employees are on the team?
Smith: It fluctuates between 25 and 30, To put it in comparison I would say the next smallest team is 50. I know of other one-car teams that are upward of 60 people and I guess that’s the compliment to our people. We run as good as some of those same teams and we compete with them with that many less people so that shows you how well everyone is doing.
Albino: Is running for Tommy Baldwin Racing everything you thought it would be when you got the phone call in January?
Smith: Quite honestly when we fired off I thought ‘okay we’re ahead of where I anticipated us being at this particular point.’ Even right now we’ll go a week like Kansas and legitimately should have finished around 19th. Unfortunately, there was a late race restart that kind of cost us some spots, but you look at a race like that and you say ‘okay, that’s a good day.’ For us as a small team that’s where we need to be and that’s how we continue to build more partners and grow it on this team. Occasionally, we’ll have a race that we know we are better than that. We know we are better than what we are on that day. As a whole the speed we’ve shown in the races I’ve been pretty happy about that.
Albino: How involved is Tommy on the team?
Smith: He’s very valuable. I mean he’s the car owner. He’s our head sales guy when it comes to going out and getting different partners and companies on the car. He’s the one that has to go to owners meetings. He’s the crew chief. He wears a lot of different hats. There’s not a lot of guys in the garage area that would be capable of doing that and still understanding it, being able to hop in the racecar, work on it our come over here and work on something on the computer, or call Golden Corral and talk to their CEO. It’s a rarity and he’s extremely valuable to us because of that. Not just that stuff, but other stuff as well.
Albino: Everyone always talks about low budgets and needing sponsorship to perform at a high level. How hard is it?
Smith: When your budget is not like a Hendrick is you need to be smarter. Every decision needs to be a little more precise because making a wrong decision and changing it in a two day period takes a little bit longer. If we go the wrong direction in something, whether it’s because I gave bad feedback, or because we thought something would work and it didn’t, or whatever, it takes a little more time to correct that, especially on the bigger stuff. With that said, I think we are doing a pretty good job of showing that these teams need to step up what they are doing as well.
Albino: What’s the pressure like to keep this ride?
Smith: There’s always pressure. This is my livelihood so I take it personal. Every time you go on the racetrack you want to win, you want to run up front, you want to do better than the time you were on the racetrack before. If there is no pressure than you probably don’t need to be doing this.
Albino: Is it comparable to last season when you had to virtually race every race like it was your last because you didn’t know what your plans were?
Smith: I don’t know if the pressure last year when I didn’t know what I was going to do this year was different that what it is now. I don’t think that changes. For me it doesn’t change what I do in the racecar. I’m going to go out there and you get the same thing on the racetrack that you get no matter what the circumstances are.
Albino: Is this just a one-year deal?
Smith: Yeah. Our focus is how do we go faster and what do we do better for the next race. That’s what we do and that’s how that stuff needs to be.
Albino: You also appear weekly on RaceHub. How did that come about?
Smith: I did a couple of them last year and they inquired me into doing some this year and I started doing some more and it’s been kind of slowly growing to where they have me on there more and more often. I don’t know if I’m doing good or bad, but I enjoy it. I have fun kind of giving different feedback on some things and just getting to talk about the sport. I love racecars so if you can talk about it the way you are at the track it might show someone who wasn’t at the track before then it’s great.
Albino: Do you ever think of anything post-NASCAR, such as broadcasting?
Smith: You always think about post-NASCAR because I can only race for so long. Whether you get on a different side of the sport, or get out of the sport all together or whatever comes after this. I’m not an engineer by trade or anything like that so that’s not in my cards to get in that part of the sport. I guess as I get older I think about that stuff a little more, but at the same time you’ve got to focus on what your tasks are at that moment and at the moment right now is to drive this car as fast as I can.
Albino: What’s your main goal for the rest of the year?
Smith: Our main goal is we want to get that consistency. We want to say ‘okay consistently here for three straight weeks, now we’ve got to figure out how to consistently be here for three straight weeks.’ Just keep making gains. I think that’s going to be the goal going on is to make gains. There are going to be more opportunity for top 10s throughout the course of the year and when that happens we needs to capitalize on that. We’ve got to get all of those that we can. We’ve got to continue growing this thing and to get it to the point where we get more resources and more of the stuff we need to go out there and keep getting better.
Follow Albino on Twitter at @DustinAlbino
Denny Hamlin had the dominant car in the Daytona 500, leading a race-high 95 laps. The Sprint Unlimited winner last Saturday evening was victorious of Martin Truex, Jr. in the closest finish in the race’s 58-year history.
The No. 11 car margin of victory was .011 seconds. All day long it was Toyota’s in the front of the field, led by the foursome of Joe Gibbs Racing and contributed by Furniture Row Racing in its first race in a Camry.
Hamlin was running fourth as the field passed the finish line with one to go. Going into Turn 1 he made a bold move to the outside getting a push from Kevin Harvick, drafting him all the way to third when race leader Matt Kenseth went to block the No. 11 car, the two made contact sending the No. 20 team to the back.
It was then a dog fight down the front stretch to see who was going to claim victory, but in the end it was Hamlin who just edged Truex by inches.
“It’s storybook,” Hamlin said. “You want to win the close ones, it’s what makes it exciting. You make a pass on the last lap to win the Daytona 500. We all want to win for the Gibbs family because that is what they do. It’s good to see a family organization like this win the biggest race of the year.”
This marks Toyota’s first Daytona 500 win as an organization and its Joe Gibbs Racing’s first Daytona 500 win since 1993 when Dale Jarrett took the No. 18 team to victory.
In his first race back in a Toyota, Truex finished in a disappointing second and came up just short of writing his name in the history books as a Daytona 500 champion.
Though, he only led two laps on the afternoon, he was in a backup car after crashing in Thursday’s Can-Am Duels. He believes that the only shot he had at the victory was Kenseth’s move to block Hamlin.
“I felt like Matt (Kenseth) moving up to block that run, it gave us the best opportunity to win,” Truex said. “Without that we weren’t going to have that opportunity. I was really planning on trying to push Matt till off of four.”
365 days following his vicious crash in the XFINITY Series race at Daytona, Kyle Busch finished third in his first race back in the Great American Race since 2014.
There were stints in the race that the No. 18 car was the car out front pacing the field for 19 laps. This is his best career finish in a Daytona 500.
The first non-Toyota finisher was Kevin Harvick, whom finished fourth. The No. 4 car was near the front for the majority of the first run of the race, until the car wiggled off Turn 4, causing him to have an incredible save.
“The problem for us started early in the race when I got spun out and lost track position and never really got the track position back until the very end of the race,” Harvick said. “We were really in a good spot there as we were coming to the checkered flag. I just wanted to be that first car in the outside line and Denny wounded up popping out in front of us and winning the race.”
Carl Edwards rounded out the top five. He had to overcome an incident on Lap 56 where his No. 19 Camry got turned into the outside wall costing him to lose a couple of laps. After getting back on the lead lap, he methodically worked his way up to run with his teammates and evidently found them on the last restart with 12 laps to go.
The right front of the car was torn off following the checkered flag, causing Edwards to wonder how he was able to stay up in the lead pack, drafting and having a shot at the victory.
Last year’s Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano finished just outside the top five in sixth. He was very aggressive throughout the entirety of the event, but could never get his Fusion out front. With a couple of laps to go he made a move trying to gain track position and go to the front, but had no help.
Regan Smith placed eighth in the 500, one position short of his career best in this event. However, for a deal that got signed one month ago to the day, putting him back full-time in a Cup car with Tommy Baldwin Racing, he considered this experience as an “awesome race.”
After leading going into Turn 3 on the final lap Kenseth came home in a disappointing 14th. He was roughly 1000 yards from cementing his legacy has a three-time Daytona 500 winner, but dropped 13 positions in the time back to the checkered flag.
The No. 20 car was out front for 40 laps, second most of all drivers, but knows that the restrictor plate tracks fill the minority of the schedule.
The complex of the race changed on Lap 170 when pre-race favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun into the inside wall. After having a big run on the outside he overcorrected his car in Turn 4 and lost control.
The disappointing 36th-place finish is not how the 13-time most popular driver wanted to start off his year. This put an end to his four consecutive top five-streak in the Daytona 500.
Pole-sitter Chase Elliott had an eventful day from the very first lap. After being out front for the opening three circuits, the No. 24 lost control of his car out of Turn 4 much like his teammate did later in the race. A 37th-place result is not the way that the Cup rookie wanted to start off his campaign.
After one of the more exciting Daytona 500 in recent years, the Cup Series takes its circus to Atlanta Motor Speedway next weekend to truly start off the new season.