Late last season, it was reported that Smithfield Foods would end their six-year relationship with Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM). The sponsor would follow Almirola, the team’s driver, to Stewart-Haas Racing, where he’d replace Danica Patrick as driver of the #10 Ford. RPM would soon hire Darrell Wallace, Jr., who relieved Almirola following his back injury at Kansas, attracting piecemeal sponsorships for 2018.
Almirola started SpeedWeeks fourth-fastest among the Fords in opening practice (18th overall), then jumped to 13th in Sunday’s qualifying session with a lap of 193.386mph (46.539 seconds). The speed lined Almirola up 7th in Duel Race 1, alongside fellow Ford driver Ryan Blaney.
Starting last in the Duel was David Ragan, who didn’t turn a lap in qualifying in Front Row Motorsports’ #38 Speedco / Love's Travel Stops Ford. Just moments after the green flag dropped, however, David Gilliland was already losing touch with the pack in Ricky Benton’s #92 Black’s Tire Ford. Soon to join him was polesitter Alex Bowman, whose #88 Nationwide Chevrolet pulled to the outside and was nearly collected by several drivers as he dropped to the rear. On Lap 2, as the field poured down the backstretch, Gilliland passed Bowman and gapped him by two-tenths of a second. Bowman and Gilliland joined Brendan Gaughan, Jeffrey Earnhardt, and Justin Marks in a five-car pack that trailed the rest of the field. With exactly 40 cars for 40 spots, nobody would not be sent home after the Duels, likely the reason that this group stayed in the back.
At first, the plan worked. The accident that sent Aric Almirola to the rear began with 6th-place runner Jimmie Johnson. Still shaking off his seventh-straight wreck in The Clash on Sunday, Johnson felt a vibration in his #48 Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet entering the tri-oval. Johnson pulled low, only to lose control at the exit of the corner with a flat left-rear tire. His car cut right, directly into the path of Almirola. The collision stuffed Almirola’s Ford into the outside wall, and it dragged against the fence into Turn 2. Both Johnson and Almirola were towed to the garage with the trailing Almirola classified last. Daniel Suarez, who suffered minor right-front damage after trailing the pair, continued on in the race.
Despite the small field, the rest of the Bottom Five was filled by accidents. William Byron’s first competitive laps in Hendrick Motorsports’ #24 Axalta Chevrolet ended in almost the same spot as his teammate when he lost control at the exit of the tri-oval and nosed into the outside wall. 17th went to David Gilliland, who caught back up to the field, only to crash when Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. cut to his inside in Turn 1. Rounding out the group was Brad Keselowski, whose #2 Discount Tire Ford made a bid for the lead with three laps to go, but crossed the nose of a closing Jamie McMurray, stuffing him into the fence.
*This marked just the second time in the history of the Can-Am Duels where car #10 finished last. The other time occurred in Race 1 in 2004, when Scott Riggs crashed out in MB2 Motorsports’ #10 Valvoline Chevrolet after he slid into the Turn 2 wall.
*This was Almirola’s first last-place finish in a Can-Am Duel.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
20) #10-Aric Almirola / 8 laps / crash
19) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 8 laps / crash
18) #24-William Byron / 38 laps / crash
17) #92-David Gilliland / 47 laps / crash
16) #2-Brad Keselowski / 57 laps / crash