DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aric Almirola left Daytona Int’l Speedway on Sunday smiling at the possibilities to come, despite his understandable dejection at narrowly missing out on the victory in the 60th annual Daytona 500.
Almirola was just one corner from a triumph in the Great American Race and his second-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory at Daytona Int’l Speedway on Sunday, a veritable feel-good story after recovering from a back fracture sustained last May in a violent crash at Kansas Speedway and switching teams during the offseason.
Debuting in his new role as driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Smithfield Ford, Almirola led the field to the white flag after an overtime restart and appeared to be in position to capture the checkered flag in the 60th Daytona 500.
Engaged in an intense four-car battle with Austin Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Denny Hamlin on the final lap, Almirola remained in control until the entrance to turn three, when he and Dillon’s No. 3 Dow Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 made contact that ultimately turned Almirola into the outside wall and relegated him to a disappointing 11th-place finish.
The emotion was evident on Almirola’s face after he climbed from his damaged race car.
“It was the last lap and we’re all trying to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola said. “It’s the biggest race of the year and it’s a career-changing race, so we were just racing really aggressively. I put every move I knew to try and stay in the lead and, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to hold on.
Despite some onlookers believing Dillon forced the last lap incident, Almirola shot down that thinking and explained that he would’ve done the same thing when chasing an triumph in NASCAR’s marquee event.
“[Dillon was] not driving too aggressively, he’s trying to win the Daytona 500 just like I was. I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500. I wasn’t gonna just let him have it.”
Regardless, Almirola was the highest finisher from the Stewart-Haas stable. His teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were involved in two earlier accidents, while Clint Bowyer struggled with engine issues before crossing the line in 15th.
For Almirola, however, he is living the dream — and thankful for each lap he competes in.
Last season during his Kansas Speedway crash, Almirola suffered a compression fracture in his back and was sidelined for seven weeks.
During that time, he was unable to compete in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, the race he earned his first-career Cup Series win at in 2014. The races he missed also took him out of contention from making an appearance in the playoffs.
But aside from the injury setback, Almirola closed the season strong, recording three top five finishes throughout the 2017 campaign and ending up 29th in the overall standings, despite missing seven races.
Then, rumours started floating that Almirola’s time with RPM was coming to a conclusion — and a new seat was on the horizon for the Tampa, Fla. native.
And that’s just what happened.
Almirola, 33, first came onto the NASCAR scene and was a promising developmental driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. During his tenure there, he had various successes in the national ranks and an even more inspiring mentor.
That mentor’s name? Tony Stewart.
So, when Almirola was prepared to move on this past offseason, Stewart didn’t hesitate when asking Almirola to join his four-car operation.
“I’m real excited to have him on board,” Stewart said this past offseason. “I’ve known Aric for a long time. We were teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing for a brief period and we’re really good friends, too. We go to dirt races together and hang out and I think this is an opportunity we’ve both been looking forward to for a very long time.”
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