In the wake of Wednesday’s penalty to teammate Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola’s situation for Sunday’s elimination race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix has gone from must-win to virtual must-win. No matter the pressure level, Almirola says he’s eager to tackle it.
Though he’ll need a win or help Sunday to advance to the Championship 4 field in the Nov. 18 finale at Homestead, Almirola says his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 team isn’t pressing ahead of Sunday’s Can Am 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the next-to-last event in the 10-race playoffs.
“We’re embracing the challenge ahead of us,” Almirola said Tuesday. “As athletes and as competitive people, this is what you live for; to be in this position — bottom of the ninth, Game 7, right? You’ve got to go do it. You’ve got to do it to win, to be able to make it to Homestead to go race for a championship.
“So this is fun stuff. This is something to get pumped up about. Makes the adrenalin levels rise, makes you know you’re alive, and it’s fun. As competitive people and athletes, it doesn’t get any better than this other than going to Homestead to race for championship, which will take it to the whole next level. We’re focused and we’re going to go to Phoenix and do whatever it takes to try to win that race.”
The penalty to Harvick’s No. 4 scratched the team’s automatic Championship 4 berth and moved the cut-off line for qualifying for the title-race field. That effectively chopped Almirola’s deficit from 57 to 35 points, reopening the door for mathematically advancing, but he still has significant ground to regain.
All four Stewart-Haas Racing cars are in play at Phoenix, but with only three open spots remaining, it’s a flood of water that won’t all fit through the funnel. Should the contest for the final positions come down to a late-race battle of SHR teammates, Almirola says he expects their competitive nature to take over — within reason.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to go race and the best problem to have would be for us to be running one through four, and then let us figure it out from there,” Almirola said. “We’ve got to race, we’ve got to be smart and we’ve got to put ourselves in position and at the end of the day, we all know what’s on the line. I think we’re all very aware that the stakes are high and the opportunity to go to Homestead to race for a championship is pretty damn awesome, so we all know that and we know that it’s desperate times will sometimes call for desperate measures, but you’ve got to be smart about it, too. You can’t on Lap 5 go drill somebody and knock them out of the way.
“I think when it gets down to the end of the race and hopefully we’re all sitting there with a shot at the win, then you know that it’s every man for himself and that we’re all going to do whatever it takes to try and get to Homestead.”