In a certain sense, Aric Almirola is "playing with house money" as he makes a run at his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship. Although he has long been considered a talent, the 34-year-old Tampa native is surpassing even high expectations during these playoffs in his first season with the Stewart-Haas Racing team.
The four-car championship organization is a perennial favorite in the Cup Series and this year makes up half the remaining Round of 8 championship field. And the "new guy" in the SHR group, Almirola, has absolutely seized opportunity and exceeded first-year potential by most accounts. He is not only keeping up with his SHR teammates Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch, he's the only member of the team to win in the playoffs to date (at Talladega).
Almirola sits in eighth place - only 12 points behind the leading four drivers in the standings - as the last championship round begins Sunday with the First Data 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Forget any championship pressure for Almirola. Many already consider him an "overachiever" in a career-best season. His shot at his first title in his first year with the team has been extremely satisfying. He has never advanced this far in the playoffs.
"I do think I am capable of handling the pressure of the championship because I don't feel like there is a lot of pressure,'' Almirola said. "I feel like we've exceeded our expectations for this year. I don't think many people expected us to make it as far as we have.
"At this point we have nothing to lose. Going for a championship at Homestead would just be icing on the cake this year.''
As for the expression that has seemed to follow him this season, "overachiever," Almirola would agree to a certain extent.
"I feel like our season has been tattooed with adversity,'' he said. "We've been close so many times to winning races but we've had a lot of stuff happen to us. What doesn't kill you will make you stronger. For our team, we've had a lot of character-building races and I feel like we're stronger because of it.''
Even prior to winning at Talladega two weeks ago - his second career victory and first since a win at Daytona in the summer of 2014 - Almirola was making good on this new opportunity driving the No. 10 Ford with SHR.
His three top-five finishes to date equals a career-high mark and his 14 top-10 finishes is double his best previous-best career effort in six seasons. He's led a career-high 181 laps in 2018 - easily surpassing his previous career-best mark of 78 laps led back in his 2012 rookie season.
And there's still four races remaining in the season to add to those numbers.
While Almirola had obviously hoped to make the playoffs after joining the successful SHR team, he concedes he's been pleasantly surprised how his team has mastered the learning curve so quickly - new driver and new team led by first-year crew chief Johnny Klausmeier.
"Obviously, we wanted to win, but our goal going into the season was to be consistent and run top-15 and don't put too much pressure on ourselves, don't bite off more than we can chew because usually you choke when that happens,'' Almirola said, "that was kind of our motto, our mentality.
"We did pretty that pretty well.''
No denying that. And yet for all the personal bests he's already recorded this year, Almirola sincerely insists the best part is being a part of the success of the whole SHR operation. And he is proud to be a viable contributor to it all.
"To have 400 employees at SHR and to have all of them pulling their weight and pulling the rope in the same direction, it's hard to get two people on the same page," Almirola explained. "But to have 400 employees helping each other out and doing whatever it takes for the team, it has been incredible for me to witness that and to be part of that."
Earning a position in the Cup Series' Final Four for the Nov. 18 Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale will be challenging, Almirola concedes. He has never won at any of the upcoming three tracks - Martinsville, Texas Motor Speedway or Phoenix's new-look ISM Raceway - that set the championship-eligible field.
Almirola has three top-10 finishes at this week's Martinsville half-miler and it's the only venue he has led laps among the three upcoming tracks. His last top-10 was eighth in 2014 and he was 14th this spring.
Statistically, anyway, the Texas Motor Speedway 1.5-miler has historically posed the biggest challenge of the trio of tracks. He has only one top 10 there - a seventh-place showing in 2013. He was 32nd this spring after being involved in a crash.
The ISM Raceway will debut a completely new look next month so past performance isn't necessarily indicative of future expectations. However, Almirola has finished top 10 in his last two races there - ninth last November and seventh this March.
"It would be incredible to make the Round of 4,'' Almirola said. "I think for us, and for me personally, that's not something I am used to. I know some of the other drivers that I'm racing against expect to be in the Round of 4 and that's pretty common for them. But for me, that's unchartered territory, and that's an opportunity for me and my career that I've never had before.
"So if we're at Homestead with a shot to go for the championship that would certainly be the pinnacle of my career and then to top it off with that trophy would be awesome.''
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---