DAYTONA BEACH — Aric Almirola, who grew up in Tampa and graduated from Hillsborough High, has always loved Daytona International Speedway. He watched races there as a youth and two years ago broke through here to win his first Sprint Cup race, the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400.
Daytona was special again for Almirola on Friday night.
By inches. By a photo finish. Under caution.
Almirola won the Xfinity series' Firecracker 250. A multi-car crash occurred as Almirola was coming to the finish line in NASCAR overtime racing. The caution came out as Almirola and Justin Allgaier raced side-by-side. After several minutes, officials determined Almirola was slightly ahead when the caution lights came on.
"I knew it was close," Almirola said. "I knew they wrecked behind us. I was like, 'When are they going to throw the caution.' I knew I was in front of him."
Almirola, 32, has struggled in Sprint Cup this season — he's 26th in points with no top-10 finishes.
"It's so cool," he said of winning. "This is just a special place for me."
He added, "I've been practically beating my head against the wall. My wife has been hiding every sharp object in the house from me. … Coming here this weekend, I thought if any weekend could turn my season around, this would be the one."
This was Almirola's second career win in NASCAR's second-tier series, unless you ask him. "I had a win, but it has an asterisk next to it for me," he said.
In 2007 at Milwaukee, Almirola filled in for Denny Hamlin when Hamlin was late to the race. Hamlin took over and finished the race, but Almirola was given the victory.
"I hated the fact that I got credit for that," Almirola said. "They tried to give me the trophy. I didn't want it. I didn't feel like I deserved to win because I wasn't in the race car when the race was over. But tonight I was."