TAMPA — Aric Almirola is playing with house money this season. After announcing his plan to retire at the end of the 2022 season, the Tampa native and his family made the decision to return to NASCAR and the Stewart-Haas Racing team.
So, Almirola heads into the Daytona 500 on Sunday with what he sees as the gift of another chance.
“I just feel like this is an opportunity that I never thought that I would have, and I’m going on my 12th full-time season in the Cup Series,” he said. “And so for me, it’s just, like, it’s a gift. And, really, that’s how I viewed everything up to this point. I’ve viewed it as a blessing, but I’ve also viewed it as something that I’ve worked really, really hard for and then I kind of was willing to release it and let it go.
“And it was given back to me.”
Almirola is making the most of every moment, no matter how long it lasts. A Hillsborough High alum, he has been a Tampa Bay sports fan since he attended Lightning games at the franchise’s start. Thursday night, he was in the NHL team’s current home, Amalie Arena, to help kick off promotion for the Daytona 500.
Almirola met with Lightning defenseman Ian Cole, bringing him a copy of a racing helmet that he signed for Cole’s two children. Cole presented Almirola with a Lightning jersey, which he put on to drop the first puck.
Before starting the game, Almirola, 38, had a chance to talk about one of his favorite things: his love for Tampa Bay sports.
“I grew up as a kid going to Lightning games,” he said. “When the franchise first came, I was 7 or 8 years old, and I remember going out to the Tampa Bay fairgrounds. And so I’ve been a fan ever since I was a little guy.
“So now to have the opportunity to come back, watch a Lightning game still as a fan, but to have this kind of access and meet the players, to go out, drop the puck and do all those sort of things, like, it’s kind of a pinch-me moment.”
Almirola acknowledged that his journey back to NASCAR this season is like that of an athlete from another Tampa Bay team. He watched as Bucs quarterback Tom Brady announced his retirement last February before returning 40 days later to play one more season. Almirola said he really didn’t think about the quarterback of his favorite team when he made his decision to reverse course.
“No, I consulted my wife and kids thoroughly before I decided to go back and give it another year or so,” he said. “Yeah, it was just a great opportunity for me to continue racing, and it was a family decision when I decided to retire, and it was very much so a family decision when I decided to go again.”
Almirola would not say if, like Brady, it would be just one more season back.
“At this point I’ve learned to never say never,” Almirola said. “I was so set on last year being my last year. I announced it to the world. I had time with my team, my guys, and I told them. It was set in stone. And then in August, I announced that I was coming back.
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“So, I’ve learned from that to never say never. You have no idea where life will take you.”
Sunday, Almirola is hoping life will take him to a win at Daytona, where in 2018 he was within half a lap of winning before crashing his car after race winner Austin Dillon locked bumpers with him. He wound up placing 11th.
Almirola began this season, after an 18th-place finish at the Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, confident in the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang he is driving.
“We had a fast car,” Almirola said. “We qualified up front, and I qualified on the pole for the race and led the first part of the race. So, I just take away the fact that we had a really fast race car and, hopefully, the way that we executed, the way we prepared for the event will translate into when the season actually starts.”
What Almirola believes will translate into the season is the confidence he now has in the Next Gen cars that were brought into the Cup Series last season.
“A year ago, there were so many unknowns. I just had no idea what to expect. I think we were nervous going into almost every race just with no idea of how the car was going to handle what the cars were going to race like on each track,” Almirola said. “And so now we have a year of notes, and we got film to study and review. We’ve got notes, we’ve got data, and I feel like we’re way better prepared this year.”