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Daytona 500: Tampa’s Aric Almirola has up-and-down day

The Hillsborough High alumnus briefly took the lead but was knocked out in the day’s big crash.
Aric Almirola climbs into his car during practice for the Daytona 500 Friday at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach. [AP Photo/Chris O'Meara]
Aric Almirola climbs into his car during practice for the Daytona 500 Friday at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach. [AP Photo/Chris O'Meara]
Published Feb. 18, 2019
Updated Feb. 18, 2019

DAYTONA BEACH — Tampa’s Aric Almirola returned to the Daytona 500 out for vengeance after being wrecked from the lead on the final lap last year.

He didn’t get it.

Instead, Almirola’s good-but-not-great car was involved in a late crash that knocked out more than half the field Sunday in NASCAR’s season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

“When a wreck happens, we kind of all pile in there,” said Almirola, who finished 32nd.

The Hillsborough High alumnus had a solid start. He briefly took the lead (but wasn’t credited with a lap led) and earned eight points with his third-place finish in Stage 2. Almirola said his car wasn’t as strong as the one that won at Talladega in October, but it was competitive.

He was stuck in the middle of the pack with 10 laps to go in regulation when Paul Menard tapped Matt DiBenedetto. In the aftermath, the back of Almirola’s No. 10 Ford went into the air. He thought he was going to flip, but his car landed on David Ragan’s front hood.

No one was injured in the 21-car accident.

“Nothing hurts,” Almirola said. “Everything’s good. Just a little disappointed.”

Dale Jr. returns

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired after the 2017 season, he expected to miss racing immediately.

Instead, he felt relief from the pressure that comes with competing in the sport’s top series.

Now that the two-time 500 champion is further removed from the car, his feelings are starting to change.

“You never get tired of driving a race car. It’s not that,” said Earnhardt, who drove the pace truck Sunday. “But you’re so happy from being out from under the pressure. As time goes on, you miss it more and more and more, which is unexpected.”

He said it

“It’s nice to be back instead of at the funeral home.” – A.J. Foyt, 84, on returning to Daytona

Nuts and bolts

Despite getting involved in one of the five crashes over the final 20 laps of regulation, seven-time Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson recovered to finish ninth. … Among the notable celebrities on hand: former Bucs star Ronde Barber, Texans standout J.J. Watt, Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and five-time IndyCar series champion Scott Dixon. … The track announced a sellout of all 101,000 reserved seats; it has sold out every year since the smaller stadium debuted in 2016.