When Aric Almirola suffered an acute compression fracture to his T5 vertebra during an accident at Kansas Speedway back in May, the expectation was that the veteran driver for Richard Petty Motorsports would be sidelined anywhere from eight to twelve weeks. After a grueling rehab process that included physical therapy and swimming, Almirola had just one step left to go before he could return.
He had to get through a test run Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“It felt great to be back in the racecar,” said Almirola. “After racing in the Monster Energy Series for five and a half years, it got to be routine, and I took it for granted. When something gets taken away from you at a moment’s notice like that, it has certainly made me appreciate my passion for racing and my desire to compete at this level.”
The test run was a success and doctors have cleared Almirola to return to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition this weekend in New Hampshire as he climbs back in to the #43 Smithfield ford. The entire Richard Petty Motorsports team, ownership, staff, and organization has been smiling ear to ear since the great news and now the excitement is building.
“He’s a tough competitor and has a burning desire to win,” said RPO Co-Owner Andrew Murstein. “He’s in his prime now so it’s been frustrating to lose him especially after a few great consecutive finishes. I told him Kyle Busch came back from his injury to win a championship so he should use this time to reflect and come back better than ever. “
Almirola returns at the earliest point of the expected recovery time, but while he was away, he went through a spectrum of emotions.
“The thrill of running 200 miles per hour in a stock car was something that I had honestly lost a little bit,” admitted Almirola. “After being out of the car for eight weeks, the passion is back, now more than ever. ““Physically, I felt great in the car and had no pain associated with the injury during (Tuesday’s) test.”
Almirola was diligent in his quest to return to action this season. Along the way, he stayed in constant communication with everyone in the organization and it was clear that he was determined to get back in that #43 car as soon as possible.
“We touched base at least weekly,” said Murstein. “He handled it with poise, understanding, and a desire to come back better than ever.”
While Almirola was sidelined, his seat in the #43 car was occupied by Bubba Wallace, Regan Smith and Billy Johnson but now he is back and his 1st race in eight weeks takes place at a track where he has notched one top five and two top ten finishes during his career. The juices will definitely be flowing throughout the organization and now the bar has been raised in terms of expectations.
“I expect him to be even better than he was,” said Murstein. “When you’re away from the sport you realize how much you miss it and how fortunate he is to be a pro athlete. He’s one of the best in the world at what he does so It makes you appreciate things more.”
As he makes his return, Almirola realizes that he’s had plenty of help along the way so that he could get back on the track seamlessly.
“I’d like to sincerely thank all of the medical personnel that have helped me through this process, my family, my friends, my team and all the fans that supported me,” said Almirola. I’m very grateful to Bubba, Regan and Billy for all of their efforts subbing for me both on and off the track. I’m excited to get back to racing against all my friends and peers in the Monster Energy Series.”
Filling in as a substitute driver is not an easy thing nor is it to find available drivers that can step in and fill the void. But during Aric’s absence, the RPM team was fortunate to find some more than capable veterans.
“Regan is a true professional,” said Murstein. “He understood his role and handled it with class. Bubba is a star in the making. He has great talent and like Jimmy Johnson he can do better in the Monster Series than the Xfinity series. Some athletes rise to the occasion and you can see he has that belief in himself and personality that should make him a big star one day soon. Between him, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson among others, NASCAR has an exciting time ahead.
This is a special time for Almirola as he’s not only back on the track but also now in a throwback mindset. He spoke with reporters on Wednesday at a press conference to also announce that on September 3rd in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, he will drive a car with a paint scheme that resembles Richard Petty’s 1984 STP Pontiac. It was that car that “The King” drove to his record setting 200th and final NASCAR victory in July of 1984 at Daytona.
“All of the 200 wins were special but the 200th definitely stands out,” said Petty. “We needed every win before to get to 200 but to have the President there was pretty special.”
On that day, President Ronald Regan became the 1st acting United States President of the United States to attend a NASCAR event. Regan gave the command for the drivers to start their engines from a phone on Air force One and would greet Petty in the press box before the Victory Lane ceremonies.
That particular race holds some extra meaning for Almirola because his first cup series win would come 30 years later to the weekend in that same Victory Lane at Daytona. Needless to say, he’s looking forward to throwback weekend and the opportunity to pay homage to Petty.
“It will be very special to throwback to such a substantial moment in NASCAR history,” said Almirola. “I always like to have a little fun with it off the track. Although, I’m not sure I’ll be able to top the Fu Manchu this year. We’ll work on it though.”
In addition to the throwback paint scheme on September 3rd, Almirola, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and the RPM #43 team will also wear throwback firesuits and uniforms throughout the weekend. But for the moment, Almirola is just thrilled to be back in the #43 car after an injury that kept him out of action for eight weeks.
Welcome back Aric!