After heartbreaking Chase opener, Almirola already in must-win situation

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Aric Almirola came into Sunday’s opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup with high hopes of being perhaps the Cinderella of the playoffs, someone who would fly under the radar all the way to the final four season-ending battle at Homestead.

Almirola got off to a great start, running as high as sixth in Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

But 36 laps from the end of the 267-lap event, the stout Roush-Yates motor in Almirola’s Ford gave up – and so went his hopes of starting the Chase off on the right foot.

“The motor just let go,” Almirola said in a Ford Racing media release issued Monday morning. “My hat goes off to (crew chief) Trent Owens and all the guys on the Eckrich team.

Our Fusion was really fast and it just wasn’t meant to be. The motor let go. Doug Yates builds awesome horsepower for us every week and we rarely have any engine issues at all. It happened – but we had a lot of horsepower while it lasted.”

Instead of a potential top-10 showing, Almirola finished a disappointing 41st in the race. And now, with nine races left in the Chase, he finds himself 52 points (the equivalent of more than one full race worth of points) behind Sunday’s winner and points leader Brad Keselowski.

Even worse, if he has another bad race at New Hampshire this Sunday, Almirola will likely find himself on the path to elimination after Dover in two weeks, rather than the road to advancement into the second round of the playoffs.

When asked if he could put what he’s feeling into words, Almirola was brutally honest.

“No, I can’t,” he said. “Heartbroken, I think, is the easiest way to describe it. I am really proud of my guys. We have nothing to hang our heads about. They brought me an awesome race car.

“We drove from 23rd up to the top-10, running sixth with just over 30 to go and it just wasn’t meant to be. We will regroup and go to Loudon and Dover and try to be spectacular.”

What makes things all the more disheartening for Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports is that they showed they had the speed to compete with the leaders.

Had Almirola’s motor not blown up, he would likely have wound up with a good finish, perhaps even a top-10 to continue his recent streak of good fortune coming into the Chase.

“I knew this team was capable of (running well),” Almirola said. “We were coming off top-10s at Richmond and Atlanta and had momentum on our side. We know what we are capable of. We know we are capable of running in the top-10. Everyone else might not think so.

“The rest of the world thinks we are underdogs and we will gladly accept that tag but what we’ve shown (at Chicago) and the last two weeks is exactly what we are capable of. We don’t have anything to hang our heads about. We will go to Loudon with our heads held high and try to rebound from this.”

Now comes Loudon and Dover.

At the flat one-mile track in New Hampshire, Almirola’s history is not encouraging. While he finished fifth there in the early summer race there last season, overall he’s made eight career starts there, of which six of those finishes have been outside the top-20 and one other outside the top-15.

As for the all-concrete oval at Dover, Almirola has a sixth-place finish and three other top-20 showings in five starts there.

But with the hole he’s in now, it’s going to take a lot more than top-20 or even top-10 finishes to get back into the Chase.

Almirola can’t take any chances. Any hopes of making it through the first three races on mere consistency and top-10 finishes has now morphed into only one plan:

“We have to win, that’s it, there is no other option” said Almirola, who earned his first career Cup victory in July’s rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. “We have to go and figure out how we can win one of the next two races.”

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