Race Weekend Central

Xfinity Breakdown: Aric Almirola Pounces When It Matters at Sonoma

Most were pretty sure a NASCAR Cup Series driver would win the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ DoorDash 250 on Saturday, June 10, at Sonoma Raceway. Kyle Larson, the 2021 Cup champion, was an overwhelming favorite. In the first round of qualifying, he had the field covered by over a second. Meanwhile, Aric Almirola turned some heads in qualifying, starting the race fourth.

The narrative coming into the race was it was Larson’s race to lose. AJ Allmendinger would be his only potential challenger, and Ty Gibbs couldn’t quite be ruled out. Then you had Xfinity regulars Justin Allgaier and Sheldon Creed who were expected to compete in the top five.

Things went mostly as expected until deep into the final stage. With 19 laps to go, Jeffrey Earnhardt lost control in turn 10 and made hard contact with the wall, bringing out the caution. At the time of caution, Larson’s lead over Allmendinger was a massive 13 seconds.

Alex Labbe and Daniel Suarez chose not to pit under caution so they led the field to green. Larson and Almirola were in row two. Allmendinger chose to restart behind Larson in row three, alongside Allgaier. Allmendinger’s choice led to Almirola quickly grabbing the lead, with Allmendinger second and Larson third.

Larson then made quick work of Allmendinger with 14 laps to go. Next, Larson gradually closed in on Almirola, stayed patient and tried to set up a clean pass.

See also
'Great Day' Brings First Xfinity Win for RSS Racing

On Almirola’s rear bumper in turn 11, with seven laps to go, Larson got into the inside tire barrier, knocked the steering wheel out of his hand, went up the track and fell back to third behind Allmendinger. His car now wounded, he never recovered and finished third.

Larson led 53 of 79 laps and seemed poised to stink up the show, but it was the steady Almirola who pulled off the huge upset, driving for RSS Racing with preparation from Stewart-Haas Racing. It was the first Xfinity win for RSS.

After going winless in 43 consecutive Xfinity races, Ford Performance has now won in back-to-back events.

The Winners

Almirola had extremely long odds to win this race. Even after a solid qualifying effort, few expected the Cup veteran from Tampa would compete for a top five, let alone win.

He was smooth all day. He was third in stage one, but a slow pit stop during the first caution set him back outside the top 10. By the end of stage two, he had climbed to sixth.

Almirola’s performance was impressive. On the final restart when he got the lead, the dominant Larson took only one lap to get by Allmendinger. It took Larson six laps to get to Almirola’s bumper, and the error-free veteran was strong enough in the esses to keep Larson fighting hard to pass him, ultimately leading to Larson’s critical mistake in turn 11.

This may be the most impressive win of Almirola’s career. Yes, he is a Cup driver who won an Xfinity race. But he was among friends and foes, with a total of seven full-time Cup drivers entered in the event plus an eighth part-timer in Josh Bilicki. Almirola has never been regarded as a strong road course racer, and this was only his fourth Xfinity win, to go along with his three Cup wins in his 18-year career in NASCAR’s top two national series.

Parker Kligerman was the highest-finishing Xfinity regular in fifth. He collected points in both stages.

Gaining two positions in points, Kligerman is now just 18 points behind Daniel Hemric for the final playoff spot.

At one point he nearly got into Allgaier, but took evasive action to avoid a repeat of the events from Portland International Raceway, when a bonzai move by Kligerman took Allgaier out of contention. This was Kligerman’s third top five of the season, the others coming at Circuit of the Americas and Daytona International Speedway.

Allgaier dealt with the car’s toe being off early in the race but soldiered on to finish fourth in both stages, and seventh in the final running order. He sits third in points, 25 behind John Hunter Nemechek.

Austin Hill had a solid if unspectacular day. He led four laps due to pit strategy, collected stage points and finished eighth. He is second in the standings, just four points behind Nemechek, but he sits atop the playoff grid because of his three wins.

Brett Moffitt has had back-to-back finishes of 12th at Portland and Sonoma. He was steady and inside the top 15 all day. Moffitt’s AM Racing team is aligned with SHR. Despite the struggles on the Cup side of the house, SHR seems to be hitting its groove in the Xfinity Series.

Cole Custer won last week at Portland and finished sixth at Sonoma. Riley Herbst stopped some of the bleeding with a 15th-place run at Sonoma, and you had Almirola winning the race in an SHR car that was entered under the RSS Racing banner, plus Moffitt with the respectable 12th-place finish in the aligned car.

Perhaps some of the good vibes from the Xfinity side can carry over to the Cup operation. SHR clearly needs whatever boost it can get over there right now.

The Losers

Josh Berry brought out the first caution of the day when his fuel pressure issues caused him to stall on track. He went on to finish the race three laps down. The somewhat low level of attrition relegated Berry to 33rd. He’s fifth in the standings but still winless. The lack of wins has him eighth on the playoff grid, 11 ahead of Creed.

Speaking of Creed, he brought home a respectable 11th, but his expectations were higher after showing so much speed earlier this season on the road courses. He qualified third but faded fast and was never much of a factor. Creed missed the playoffs last season, and despite running better this year, he won’t have much breathing room should we get a surprise winner or two.

See also
Sonoma Xfinity Win Slips Out of Kyle Larson's Fingertips After Turn 11 Blunder

Anthony Alfredo and BJ McLeod Motorsports had a weekend to forget. During qualifying, Alfredo’s throttle hung going into turn 1, leading to massive damage and a totaled primary car. His team then spent the evening preparing its battered Portland car to run at Sonoma. He retired after 44 laps due to a suspension issue and finished 37th. After showing flashes of speed and finishing in the teens five out of six races to start the season, Alfredo has finished better than 21st just once in the last 8 races.

Scheme of the Week

Brad Perez and Emerling-Gase Motorsports make their debut appearance in the Scheme of the Week section in 2023. There are some 2004 Robby Gordon No. 31 Cingular Wireless vibes with this one, which made it stand out on the track. Two weeks ago we selected Kaz Grala‘s coffee-related scheme and here we are again, highlighting Apex Coffee Roasters. Fitting during the night of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Perez wheeled his No. 53 Chevrolet to a lead-lap finish in 29th.

Fuel for Thought

This race was dominated by Cup regulars. In three weeks (July 1) we’ll be at another course that goes right and left, the Chicago street course. In that race, Cup drivers aren’t allowed to enter.

There were three Xfinity regulars who finished top 10 in both stages as well as the final running order. The highest finisher among them was Kligerman. Could Chicago be the race that gets Kligerman into the win column and off the playoff bubble? Or will Sam Mayer or Creed seize that opportunity?

Where to Next?

The circuit takes a week off next week. After the break, we’re headed to Nashville Superspeedway for the Tennessee Lottery 250. Last year it was Allgaier winning this race in dominant fashion, leading 134 of 188 races. Can Allgaier repeat and get his second win of the season?

It all gets started Saturday June 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET. TV coverage will switch to USA for the first time in 2023, and the radio broadcast can be heard on Performance Racing Network.

About the author

Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.

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