It has become popular among the observer class to describe NASCAR’s top competitive level as a fallen and dazed boxer crawling on the canvas searching for a missing mouthpiece, dislodged by cascading overhand rights.
Could the sport, which has seen declines in attendance and television viewers in recent years, survive the retirement of megastars with the cult followers – Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Junior, NASCAR’s second (or third) coming?
More time is needed to know, though the answer appears to be yes as stock car’s top brains and market-ologists read the pulse of its fanbase and adjust to its wants and needs.
However, it goes without saying that irony has emerged as NASCAR Cup’s best early season story in 2018.
Stewart-Haas and driver Kevin Harvick — his No. 4 Ford a winner in three of the season’s first four races — are the best thing going at the moment because the organization lost the sport’s prettiest face and a top endorsement draw.
Aric Almirola, a 34-year-old journeyman, has found a comfort level in his new home as the navigator of the No. 10, the same car seat occupied in recent years by Danica Patrick. Stewart-Haas is a more competitive race organization because it has had four good cars with good data to draw on.
Stewart-Haas’ four drivers — Harvick, Almirola, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer — all finished in the top 10 on Sunday in Phoenix.
“The thing I took away from it was the No. 10 car and Aric Almirola were more competitive for us, and that is important for us to have that extra set of notes that we really hadn't used the last several years because that car hasn't performed well enough,” Harvick said on his radio show Happy Hours. “It hasn't been competitive enough to really bring anything to the table.”
For Almirola, the arrangement has been the proverbial blessing after going to bed each night for the better part of six years wondering if he belonged in the sport while in Richard Petty’s No. 43.
Like his team, Almirola will arrive to Texas Motor Speedway re-made for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 on April 8.
Joining Stewart-Haas, quite frankly, has probably saved his career from, at best, a professional rut, at worst the inescapable black hole. Though a playoff driver in 2014 with seven top-10 finishes, he had 13 top 10s in 101 starts between 2015-17. Since 2006, he also has three victories in the Xfinity series and two Truck wins.
But this year, Almirola has already registered two top-10 finishes in four races.
Most importantly, his 10th-place average finish this season is 14 spots better than Patrick in her six years at Stewart-Haas.
“This makes me feel like I’m fitting in at Stewart-Haas and delivering on expectations,” Almirola said. “For me, it validates the move to Stewart-Haas and everything I believed about over the off-season.
“I felt like this would be my opportunity to go and prove that I could be competitive and run up front. So far, we’re off to a good start.”
After years of doubts, he is finally living affirmation. That’s a big deal psychologically for any athlete, particularly one competing at the highest levels.
Uncertainty has driven many from their sports. And that is nothing compared to others who simply could not live with failure.
The good start, Almirola said, is less about him and more about the resources and tools he has “at his fingertips” at Stewart-Haas. John Klausmeier, a race engineer with Stewart-Haas, was promoted to crew chief of the No. 10 in December. He replaced Billy Scott, who, as part of an organizational reshuffling, took over Busch’s No. 41.
Though a newcomer to his job, the 36-year-old Klausmeier has won at this level, as the interim chief in Busch’s victory at Pocono Raceway in 2016.
“Over the last six years, I felt like I had an excuse,” Almirola said. “My equipment has been an excuse. Now, that’s not the case anymore. It’s up to me and John Klausmeier and the team to put all that stuff to its best use.”
It takes a lot of time working together for a new team to mesh, though it’s hard not to see the momentum and foundation of a good race team being built in the No. 10 garage.
Harvick’s dominating start is the story after the season’s first few weeks. So is the success at Stewart-Haas with its new key piece.
“I don’t care about the money or the fame,” Almirola said. “For me, it’s about racing. I love racing. I love competing. For me, that’s what it’s all about, and I get to do it at the elite level.”
Better than he has ever done it.