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Aric Almirola’s nightmare lives, but so does the dream

Tampa’s Aric Almirola was a mile from winning the Daytona 500 last year. He didn’t. But he carried on.
Tampa's Aric Almirola is back at the Daytona 500 one year after a late crash cost him a chance to win the race of his dreams. [Times files (2017)]
Tampa's Aric Almirola is back at the Daytona 500 one year after a late crash cost him a chance to win the race of his dreams. [Times files (2017)]
Published Feb. 14, 2019|Updated Feb. 14, 2019

DAYTONA BEACH — Aric Almirola turns 35 next month and has already done his share of growing up on NASCAR’s biggest stage. It will never get worse than last February on the high banks at Daytona International Speedway.

Almirola led the race of his childhood dreams growing up in Tampa, the Daytona 500. He was in the lead with a mile to go. One mile.

He walked away broken-hearted after he was nudged into oblivion by Austin Dillon, the eventual winner of the Daytona 500. Spin. Wreck. A dream crushed.

“I could literally see it, feel it, smell it, taste it, everything you can imagine,” Almirola said. “It was there. It was right at my fingertips.”

He recently tweeted a photo of his wreck, with one word, all caps.

Redemption.

“That says enough,” Almirola said.

He achieved so much last year, his first with Stewart-Haas Racing, and it paid off with his best year as a racer on his sport’s top rung, with career bests everywhere, including a win the fall at Talladega and an extended playoff run to the final eight.

By any measure, Almirola has arrived, free from underfunded teams and days that brought no real hope of winning. This is progress, even after it began with that 500 nightmare.

“I really don’t have a negative attitude toward last year’s race,” Almirola said.

He has no idea if he’ll ever win the 500, or even come that close again.

But he’d rather be here than anywhere else.

“I come to this racetrack with a really positive outlook,” Almirola said. “I’ve always enjoyed just driving through the tunnel and just being here at Daytona. This is a dream come true for me. I’ve always excited and fired up. I really think that positive attitude carries over through the weekend.”

Even after last year.

“It was tough to swallow. Defeat is never easy, especially in that situation, right there at the last minute in the closing mile. I think everything happens for a reason. If we had won right out of the gate, things might have gone differently for our race team.”

He had personal bests with four top-5 finishes, 17 top 10s. He led more laps in 2018, 181, than he had in the rest of the years of his career combined.

And there was the playoff chase, itself, lessons every week, information to be stored for next time.

“I learned a lot going thought the playoffs and going as deep into the rounds as we did, coming that close to the championship four. I learned how hard it is. I learned how incredibly pressure-packed it is. You don’t really understand that until you go thought it yourself. I think it will make us better this year and for years to come.”

That’s not to say it was easy. Some lessons were tougher than others. Late in a playoff quarterfinal at Texas, Joey Logano and Almirola nearly came together. Logano, who had already secured a spot in the final four, took off. Almirola got loose and spun out. He threatened revenge at Homestead, but it never happened. Logano won the points title.

“That was just hard racing,” Almirola said. “Emotions were running real high. We were deep into the playoffs, at Texas, everybody is trying to get everything they can. I felt as a Ford teammate, he could have cut me some slack. He chose not to and so I was just upset. We talked it out. We’re fine.”

Almirola surprised a lot of people last season. They’ll see him coming this time around. It’s a different kind of pressure.

““Pressure is good,” Almirola said. “If you don’t have pressure, you don’t have expectations.”

Almirola has to find more consistency, but keeps reminding himself just how far he came last season, and from the very start. A few days before the Daytona 500, he wrecked out in one of the dual races after he tangled with Jimmie Johnson and blew a tire. He started last in the 500.

“And we were leading the last lap,” Almirola said.

With a mile to go.

A tap, a nudge. That was it.

“That was a hard one," he said, "but I really felt it made our team grow together and kind of created a bond among me and my teammates, to kind of rally around each other, pick each other up and hold our heads high and carry on. We kind of left Daytona knowing our competitors were going to have to deal with us each and every weekend.”

He loves restrictor-plate racing. He loves these big tracks. He loves Daytona most of all, his place of childhood dreams. The dreams still lives.

“I think about being a mile away,” Almirola said. “I want to close out the deal. Whatever it takes.”

Daytona 500

2:30 p.m. Sunday, Daytona International Speedway

TV: FOX | Tickets: daytonainternationalspeedway.com, 1-800-748-7467


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Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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