History in sight, Aric Almirola’s heart broken at Daytona 500

Aric Almirola, top, is knocked out of the Daytona 500 after a last-lap nudge by Austin Dillon in the No. 3.  [Getty Images]
Aric Almirola, top, is knocked out of the Daytona 500 after a last-lap nudge by Austin Dillon in the No. 3. [Getty Images]
Published February 18 2018
Updated February 18 2018

DAYTONA BEACH — Early Sunday evening, Aric Almirola walked from the infield care center and back to the garage area at Daytona International Speedway. His day was done, and with it a dream, the biggest you can have. He was released when medical staff determined he had suffered no injuries. At least none that could be detected.
"My heart is broken," Almirola said.
Tampa's Almirola — Hillsborough High — was a handful of seconds from history. He had grabbed the lead before the white flag dropped and was going down the backstretch and he was going to win the Daytona 500. He was in the lead, heading for home.
A nudge. A tap. That was all it took.
Austin Dillon's front bumper touched Almirola's rear bumper. And that was that. The race leader spun and wrecked. Dillon, driving the No. 3 — Dale Earnhardt's number — won the Daytona 500, 20 years after Earnhardt won the 500 and 17 years to the day Earnhardt died at this track. Almirola officially finished 11th.
"I did everything I could," Almirola said. "I put myself in a position to win the Daytona 500. I did everything to try to win."
He was less than a lap from living the dream he began having as a child, when his family traveled to Daytona's high banks to watch the racing. Winning the 500 was a dream that was just as important to him as his Cuban heritage, and his journey to the top, or close to the top, in his racing career.
A nudge. A tap.
Almirola tried to block the charging Dillon. He said he had no choice. He had no ill will for Dillon. He was classy.
"I'm doing everything I can to win the Daytona 500," Almirola said. "If that was Lap 5, I probably wouldn't have pulled that block. But it was the last lap of the Daytona 500, and I was doing everything I could to win."
Dillon raced to the win, followed closely by Bubba Wallace, who took second, the best Daytona 500 finish ever by a black driver. There was history at Daytona on Sunday.
Daytona, Almirola's favorite track, is where he won his only race in NASCAR's top series, the rain-shortened 2016 Coca-Cola 400. This is where he won an Xfinity race in 2016. And this is where he finished fourth in last year's Daytona 500.
Sunday could have been his day, in the first race of the season, the Super Bowl of NASCAR. And in Almirola's first race for his new team, Stewart-Haas Racing. He wasn't in a car for Richard Petty Motorsports anymore. Almirola was finally in a ride where he could win.
And he nearly did.
A nudge. A tap.
Almirola went over his encounter with Dillon.
"He got to my back bumper and he was pushing," Almirola said.
"I had a ton of momentum, caught him and turned him," Dillon said. "He should do the same thing to me in the same situation."
Who knows if Almirola will ever come as close as he did Sunday. You never know what can happen. Last year, a lot of happened to Almirola. He was in a wild crash in Kansas that left him with a compressed T5 vertebrae. He was out six weeks. He was grateful when he returned. He was out to win Sunday.
"My heart is broken, but the beauty is we'll go to Atlanta (next week), and we've got an incredible race team at Stewart-Haas Racing," he said. "We've got another shot next week. … That's something I've not had my whole career, where I feel like every week I get on the plane to go to the race track, we're going to have a shot to win."
Almirola, 33, has fought his way to NASCAR's top rung, coming up the hard way, good rides, bad rides, so many twists and turns. But he never forgot where he came from, as he tells Tampa schoolchildren whenever he can.
"I tell them any dream is possible," he said last year.
He was going to be the king of Daytona.
A nudge. A tap.
"I've got a lot to look forward to," Almirola said. "My boss, Tony Stewart, came in the infield care center and gave me a huge hug …"
It was the same after Almirola left the care center and made his way to the garage and his No. 10 team's hauler. Members of other race crews stopped to embrace him. They told him what a great race he had run. What do you say to a broken heart?
On the speedway speakers, Austin Dillon was talking about his big day.
"I'm sorry," Almirola told media. "I just want to be with my guys."
He disappeared into the hauler.
A nudge. A tap. That was all it took.