NASCAR Richmond Notebook: Aric Almirola Comes Up Shorts In Last Ditch Effort At Making Chase

(NASCAR Wire Service)

Seth Livingstone ~ NASCAR Wire Service

Aric Almirola (Photo: Jonathan Moore/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Aric Almirola (Photo: Jonathan Moore/Getty Images for NASCAR)

RICHMOND, Va. – Nobody, including Federated Auto Parts 400 winner Matt Kenseth could have seen this blue bolt of lightning coming on Saturday night.

But on the final restart, there was the charging No. 43 of Aric Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports on Kenseth’s rear bumper.

Almirola had nothing to lose and only a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup to gain. Outside of the top 16 in points, only a victory would be enough to propel Almirola into the first round of the playoffs.

Until the final laps, that wasn’t even a topic of conversation, as the Joe Gibbs Racing cars in general, and Kenseth in particular, dominated the event. Without a top-10 finish in his previous 12 races, Almirola started 24th and was little factor in the first half of the race.

That changed in the closing laps.

“The race started a little slow for us,” admitted crew chief Trent Owens. “We made some good adjustments on pit road and the thing came alive.”

Even after making a charge, with 40 laps remaining Almirola was 9.9 seconds behind Kenseth, sitting in sixth place. However, a caution with 26 laps to go bunched the field, and with Almirola coming out of the pits in third place, there was suddenly some drama – particularly for driver Paul Menard, whose Chase bubble would burst with an Almirola victory.

In the end, however, the 43 proved no match for Kenseth (who some observers thought jumped the gun) on the restart.

“I wish I would have anticipated the 20 (Kenseth) going that early,” said Almirola on pit road after the race. “He restarted well before the restart zone. It just caught me by surprise. I had every intention, going into the restart, that I was going to push the 20 through Turns 1 and 2 and try to get by them and have a shot at winning the race.

“They had a real fast car. We weren’t capable of outrunning those guys, heads-up, anyway. But I was thinking of putting a bumper to him and trying to do everything I could do to get this Ford Fusion into victory lane.

Almirola, 31, was hoping to qualify for the Chase for a second consecutive year, in part to redeem last year’s efforts. A blown engine in the first race of the Chase, at Chicagoland, doomed the hopes of his team, which had earned the Chase berth thanks to a July victory at Daytona.

“I am disappointed, for sure,” Almirola said. “This is what we race for. We race to win races. We race to run for a championship. We got to do it last year and we had an engine failure at Chicago and feel like we had a lot more to show in the Chase. We wanted another shot at it really bad.”

Almirola wasn’t the only one to come up short Saturday night.

Kyle Larson also needed a victory on Saturday night to qualify for the Chase, but it was not in the cards.

Larson, 23, was competitive for much of Saturday’s race, starting 11th and running in the top 10 for the bulk of the race. But he never mounted a serious threat to the leaders and finished 12th.

“I was able to drive up to fifth at one point in time and kind of hold that for a while – which I thought was good,” Larson said. “But I just wasn’t very good throughout our run.”

Larson, who posted eight top fives in his first full Sprint Cup campaign a year ago, has only one top five this year. He was bitten by crashes at both Daytona races, Talladega and, most recently at Bristol, where his 41st-place showing all but sealed his fate. “I think everybody on our team thought the 42 would definitely be in the Chase (at the) start of the season – the way we ended last year,” he said. “But it wasn’t the case this season. We’ve struggle pretty much all year long with being consistent.”

Kasey Kahne finished 18th and actually sits ahead of Larson in the point standings in 17th, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver was never a threat to win his first race of the season.

“I think the main thing for me is just figuring out how to get a car to turn again,” said Kahne, who couldn’t crack the top 10 on Saturday. “I’ve struggled all year to have front turn and if I don’t have that, I can’t race.”

Chase Fest Set for Chicago

As The Chase rapidly approaches, so too does the fan celebration that will help kick it off in Chicago – Chase Fest sponsored by Toyota. The free outdoor fan fest will feature all 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Challengers and culminate with a live concert by Grammy-nominated band, 3 Doors Down.

NASCAR Chase Fest will take place on Weed Street between Fremont and Kingsbury streets from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. CDT on September 17 and will feature appearances and autograph sessions from all 16 drivers competing in the Challenger Round, as well as a number of recognizable NASCAR personalities. Fans in attendance will be treated to food from renowned Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, beverages from Coors Light (with proper ID), attractions such as the Toyota Ferris Wheel and NASCAR on NBC Sports Bumper Cars, activations from event sponsor Sprint including an appearance by Miss Sprint Cup and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Trophy, and another live musical performance by a Chicago favorite, country cover band the Suburban Cowboys.

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