DAYTONA BEACH — Tampa’s Aric Almirola entered the final lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500 envisioning a storybook ending.
The Hillsborough High alumnus has won at Daytona International Speedway before and was leading with half a lap left four years ago before crashing. So when he avoided two late crashes and found himself near the front at the end of what will likely be his final 500 on Sunday, Almirola could sense a historic farewell.
“Man, I believed it,” he said.
It didn’t happen. His No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford couldn’t get to the front, forcing him to settle for fifth. It was his second top-five finish in the Great American Race, after a fourth-place run in 2017.
“It still hurts,” said Almirola, who has said he’s retiring from full-time NASCAR competition after this year. “This is incredible to come here and almost feel like we had a shot at getting it done. Dang it, so close.”
A few hours before the green flag, the 37-year-old said one big part of his post-NASCAR future will be decided after the season, once he has a long-awaited conversation with his mom.
Almirola was a sophomore mechanical engineering student at UCF in 2004 when he got the opportunity to pursue driving thanks to a NASCAR diversity initiative. He left UCF before his final exams to try to make one more run at becoming a professional driver. He told his mother he could always go back to school if driving didn’t work.
“It has worked out,” Almirola said. “I’ve been blessed beyond my wildest imagination. I’ll have to have a sit-down with my mom and see if I have to go back to school. I did promise her I would.”
Next Gen reaction
Though NASCAR used its new Next Gen cars in the Clash in Los Angeles earlier this month and at Thursday’s duels at Daytona, Sunday marked the true debut of the machines. If there was a consistent issue, it was with the wheels. Kaz Grala lost one in the first stage of the 500 from a loose lugnut. Justin Haley had a tire break down, and the crew of Ryan Blaney’s Ford had issues getting one back on.
There were no significant injuries reported from wrecks, even after Harrison Burton’s car landed upside down after a wreck.
Elliott signs extension
Chase Elliott, 26, will remain with Hendrick Motorsports and its No. 9 Chevrolet through the 2027 season after signing a five-year extension, the team announced. Elliott, the 2020 Cup champion and one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, has won 13 races in his six full-time seasons in NASCAR’s top series. He finished 10th Sunday.