By Dustin Albino

The race weekend at Martinsville Speedway began with Aric Almirola announcing his departure from Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the 2023 season. While stepping back from full-time racing, he didn‘t rule out running a partial schedule across a variety of different series. 

A few hours later, when Cup Series cars hit the track for practice, Almirola was strong. Stewart-Haas Racing backed up its spring performance at Martinsville, with three of its cars making it to the final round of qualifying. The only one that didn‘t, though, was Almirola‘s No. 10 Ford. 

Almirola had long-run speed during Sunday‘s 500-mile race, but he missed out on scoring any stage points. He barely missed in the second stage, finishing 11th. 

It was a two-tire strategy call by Almirola‘s crew chief Drew Blickenderfer that gained the No. 10 car valuable track position during the final stage. When Michael McDowell spun out for what turned out to be the final caution, Chase Elliott, Corey LaJoie and Erik Jones didn‘t pit. Almirola was the first of six cars that took two tires. 

Almirola passed Elliott for the lead with 89 laps remaining during a final 168-lap green flag stretch to the finish. He led the following 66 laps before Ryan Blaney made the pass for the win with 23 laps left in the race. 

The margin of victory was under a second. The runner-up finish for Almirola is his best result since winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2021, 85 races ago. The veteran driver still left disappointed. 

“It‘s incredibly heartbreaking,” Almirola said following the race. “I‘ve got my family here: my wife, my kids, I‘ve got my grandparents, my mom, my stepdad, everyone that helped me get my start in racing came to watch. I wanted so badly to celebrate with them in Victory Lane. They helped me get to where I‘m at today, so I wanted it so bad for them. 

“My race team deserves to go to Victory Lane; I wanted to celebrate with them. I just came up a little short.” 

The 66 laps led for Almirola was the most circuits he‘s spent out front since leading 128 of them at Kentucky Speedway in 2020. The runner-up finish ties Kevin Harvick‘s second-place result at Darlington Raceway for the best finish of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing. With Chase Briscoe finishing fourth, his first top-five finish since Talladega Superspeedway in April, it‘s the first time SHR has put multiple cars inside the top five since the 2022 season finale at Phoenix Raceway. 

Fading to Blaney, who had a dominant long-run pace, is going to take some time for Almirola to get over. 

“Maybe tomorrow I will think [finishing second] is good,” he said. “Right now, I‘m just disappointed that I didn‘t win.”

In what could be Almirola‘s final Cup race at Martinsville, he posted his first top-five finish at the famed short track since 2012, when he was competing with Richard Petty Motorsports. Four of his last five starts at the half-miler have been eighth or better. 

Almirola will make his final start for SHR next weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

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