DAYTONA BEACH — Aric Almirola has cruised through the tunnel into Daytona International Speedway countless times in countless ways.
As a bright-eyed boy riding over from his Tampa home to watch the cars speed around the world-famous tri-oval. As an up-and-coming driver thirsting for a chance to compete in NASCAR’s top Cup series. As a middling professional wondering if this was his last shot. As a winner hoping to add another trophy to his collection.
And, this week, as a retiring veteran savoring every moment leading up to the Daytona 500 that kicks off his final full-time season Sunday.
“Slow down,” Almirola said. “Take it all in. Embrace it. What we get to do is incredible.”
What Almirola himself has done is incredible on its own.
He’s the son and grandson of Cuban immigrants who took a freedom flight to Miami with three changes of clothes apiece. The Hillsborough High alumnus started studying mechanical engineering at UCF when his future as a driver looked bleak, then pivoted when he heard about a NASCAR diversity initiative. Almirola went all in on long odds; he quit school, living on hot dogs, grilled cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches if that’s what it meant to keep his dream going.
Nine years later, he had a full-time Cup ride under racing legend Richard Petty. Two years after that, he was Cup winner after beating the field at Daytona in the rain-shortened 2014 Coke Zero 400.
No, Almirola has not had a Hall of Fame career. He enters Sunday with three victories, three poles and 26 top-five finishes in 388 Cup races across 14 seasons. His best year was a fifth-place finish in 2018.
But he has a decade as a solid competitor in the country’s premier racing series. In a sport known for feuds and drama, Almirola doesn’t have many, if any, enemies.
“Aric’s one of those guys that just seems to always do the right thing,” Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick said. “That’s how he presents himself in meetings and every situation that I’ve ever seen Aric in.”
Including his impending exit.
Last month, Almirola announced he’ll retire as a full-time Cup driver after this season to spend more time with his wife and two children. The 37-year-old hasn’t ruled out future races here and there — maybe even another Daytona 500, if the opportunity arises and his family approves — but the nine-month-a-year grind is coming to an end.
“It’s been a wonderful career,” Almirola said. “I’m so blessed to have had the opportunity, and I want to still make the most of it.”
That means Almirola is preparing the same way he always has. Other than some more media interviews and a brief feeling of relief, his offseason was business as usual. His desire to win remains unchanged, and his wife, Janice, is handling the flood of extra ticket requests from family and friends this week so Almirola can remain focused on his job.
But making the most of the opportunity also means something different this time.
As Almirola rose through the ranks, racing went from a hobby to a job. An exciting, enviable and lucrative job, yes, but a job nonetheless. His weekend schedule is planned down to the minute to account for every interview, meeting, practice session and sponsor event.
“It turns into work,” Almirola said. “And there’s expectations put on you, and there’s demands put on you, and there’s stress put on you.”
Not anymore, or at least not as much. Almirola doesn’t have to impress sponsors to keep them on board for next season if there is no next season. He doesn’t have to worry or wonder about his next contract, either. There isn’t one.
This is it.
As Almirola starts the final lap of his career, he’s slowing down. He wants to remember what got him started on this incredible ride in the first place. It wasn’t the trophies or contracts or money. He raced because it was fun. And for the first time since he was a kid in Tampa, Almirola can embrace it.
“I’m going to go drive a race car because it’s what I love to do,” Almirola said. “That’s a really awesome feeling.”