Aric Almirola capped off his 2012 season with a top-10 finish in a performance that saw him battling in the top three until the very last lap.
The No. 43 Smithfield Ford team started the race in the fifth position after yet another fast qualifying effort.Â But a tight-handling car had Almirola dropped back to 14th by the teamâs first green-flag stop.Â Bringing his driver down pit road on Lap 45, crew chief Todd Parrott gave Almirola four tires and fuel along with air pressure and track bar adjustments to help loosen up his machine.Â A second pit stop on Lap 79 under a debris caution brought further air pressure changes to try to give Almirola the car he needed.
The car responded, with Almirola able to wheel his Ford Fusion around the 1.5-mile oval more easily.Â By Lap 95, he was in the seventh position, passing cars and running fast laps, often as fast as the leader.Â And he returned to the top five on Lap 131 when a fast green-flag pit stop put him back on track in fifth.Â But an air pressure change on that stop didnât suit the car well and Almirola had dropped back to seventh by the time another debris caution came out on Lap 142.Â
Looking to gain track position, Parrott made the call to change right-side tires only, putting his driver in the third position for the restart.Â Almirola hung steady in the top five until the next yellow flag waved on Lap 153 for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hitting the wall.Â This time, Parrott called for a four-tire change.Â The move put Almirola back on track on 14th, as many other teams opted to change only two.
The four fresh Goodyears allowed the No. 43 Ford to charge back up into the top 10 within four laps and up to seventh by Lap 181.Â By this point in the race, the Smithfield Fusion was handling fairly well â just a little bit tight â and running fast laps.Â But Parrott had been asking his driver to help save some fuel wherever he could, on the hope the team could make it to the end of the race on one more fuel stop.
As cars began to peel off for pit stops, Almirola stayed on track, hoping to outlast as many cars as possible before bringing his car in for its final trip down pit road.Â By Lap 203, he was in fourth, with the three cars ahead of him working the same strategy.Â Almirola finally pulled off the track on Lap 211 for his final stop of the day.Â The crew gave him four new tires and a tank of gas to make his final push toward the front.Â When the field had finished cycling through this round of pit stops, Almirola was in fifth and among the fastest cars on the track.
Still not 100 percent certain they could make it to the end on fuel, Parrott continued to urge his driver to conserve as much gas as possible. With the race approaching just 12 laps to go, Almirola had four cars in front of him on the leaderboard.Â He then gained two positions when leader Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had to pit for fuel.
With just 10 laps remaining, Almirola sat in third, looking at a potential season-best and career-best finish.Â Only Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer were in front of him.Â With Parrott coaching him on, Almirola took the white flag still in third position.Â But by the time he crossed the line to begin that final lap, he could feel the car was running out of fuel.Â Circling the final lap off pace, Almirola still had enough speed to cross the finish in seventh, earning his fourth top-10 of the season.
The result was enough to lift Almirola one position in the point standings for a 20th-place finish on the year.
Jeff Gordon won the seasonâs final race and Brad Keselowski clinched his first Sprint Cup Championship, securing the title after his only challenger, Jimmie Johnson, was knocked out of the race with a broken rear-end gear.
Comments from Almirola after Homestead: âWe had a strong car all day.Â We fought with it at the beginning because it was just up on top of the race track.Â It was tight, it was loose, but Todd Parrott made some great adjustments throughout the race and kept making it better and better and better.Â We got it really good in the middle part of the race and then at the end we were just trying to do all we could to save fuel.Â That was a great way to go out.Â I wish we would have finished third.Â To be third on the white flag and then finish seventh is disappointing, but thatâs racing.Â I could tell it was starting to run out when I came off of four to take the white, but Iâm still proud of my guys and the way they fought.Â Â Iâm excited about next year.Â Todd Parrott and all these guys give me great race cars, so weâre gonna win races.â