By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LOUDON, N.H. -- After turning 26 laps in opening Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday, Aric Almirola said he felt as good as he did before the crash at Kansas that broke his T5 vertebra.
Back in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford after missing eight races as he recovered from the May 13 injury, Almirola can thank his diligent attention to his rehabilitation for a return to action as early as possible.
"The doctors from the very beginning were very clear to me that 8-12 weeks at best was the time frame," Almirola said after posting the 22nd-best practice speed at the one-mile flat track in preparation for Sunday's Overton's 301 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). "It was more probably to be upwards of 16 weeks.
"I was concerned about the later return, and so I was really diligent with my recovery and my rehab and all my therapy. To be able to come back right at eight weeks just so happened to be Loudon, N.H."
Almirola considers the Magic Mile an ideal track for his return.
"Of all the tracks you look at on the schedule, this is certainly the one that has the least amount of loading as far as banking and speed is concerned," said Almirola, who tested at Charlotte on Tuesday before coming to Loudon. "It's a great race track for me to come back and knock the cobwebs off and not really put my spine through a lot of loading for a long period of time.
"I think Charlotte, Texas, Dover--those kinds of places would probably be a lot worse, but I feel great. I ran a lot of laps at Charlotte. We were there for four hours. I was pretty much in the car a large majority of the time, and I felt great inside the car. I don't really foresee any issues. I might have some soreness after the race, but I think that's to be expected, as far as my doctors are concerned."
Above all else, Almirola is ecstatic just to be racing again.
"I am stoked," he said. "Really excited ... It felt really nice to be able to walk through the garage and see all my peers and guys in the garage area, to have so many people that walk by and say, 'Hey, welcome back.' It certainly makes me feel good."
DRIVERS HAD INPUT INTO LOCATION OF SEALER AT N.H.
Emblematic of the spirit of cooperation between various stakeholders in the NASCAR industry was the solicitation of driver opinion before the application of PJ1 (a compound designed to provide more grip to the racing surface) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"The question got put out to a lot of different drivers this week from the (drivers') council, and we kind of got on our group chat and were talking back and forth about what we thought was best," Joey Logano said.
Accordingly, in consultation with NASCAR and the track, the drivers recommended treating the bottom lane and the third lane with PJ1, leaving the primary racing groove alone.
"The wider we can make the race track, the more air we can get on the nose, the more passes that can be made," Logano said. "When you think about that, how do we make it wider? How do we do that? We have to go to where we don't run. Right now, the fastest lane on this race track is the second lane.
"How do we make the track wider? We have to put some up in the third lane and make the bottom better, so the guy on the bottom has a shot to keep rotating and get off the corner to actually clear somebody. That was the goal. We'll see how that works."
BUSCH, HAMLIN HAVE TO 'WATCH THEIR BACKS'
Kyle Busch has always had an eye for talent. He just hopes his acumen in identifying and nurturing future stars doesn't come back to bite him.
Busch "discovered" current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie Erik Jones at the 2012 Snowball in Pensacola, Fla., where Jones found the perfect way to make Busch notice--by beating him.
After a year at Furniture Row Racing, Jones will move to Joe Gibbs Racing next season as Busch's teammate, supplanting Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota. Kenseth has not announced his plans for 2018, saying last week at Kentucky last weekend that he does not yet have a deal for next year.
Daniel Suarez is a rookie with JGR this season, having jumped into the No. 19 Toyota after Carl Edwards abruptly announced his departure during the offseason. That leaves Busch and Denny Hamlin as the two drivers with the most seniority.
Busch hired both Jones and Suarez as drivers for his Kyle Busch Motorsports NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team, and as of next year, both will be his teammates at JGR.
That circumstance is enough to make Busch wary, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.
"If you look at it now, that's me, Denny, Daniel and Erik, so either myself or Denny are the next two out, if I continue to feed them through KBM as quickly as I have been, so we're watching our backs," Busch quipped. "That's for sure."