Aric Almirola wasn’t struck with a sickening feeling or any unusual thoughts as he rolled into Daytona International Speedway this weekend given what happened here in February. In the biggest race of the year, Almirola charged toward Turn 3 as the race leader on the final lap and was turned by Austin Dillon for the win.
“When I come here in July, I have really fond memories of my first win here back in 2014, so I think about the good stuff,” Almirola told RACER. “I try not to let my mind drift back to February.
“I think February — there was a lot of positive to come out of that. The one negative is that I don’t have a Harley J. Earl Trophy. But this is a special place, and when I come here whether it’s in February or July and I’m at home.”
A Florida native, Almirola grew up two hours south of the speedway in Tampa.
Confident coming into the season he would have a chance for wins if put into a position to do so, the closest the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been to seeing a checkered flag first through the opening half of the year was that season-opening race.
“I don’t think it’s surprising,” Almirola said of being winless. Instead, he remains “pleasantly surprised” at how many times he unloads at the track with a top-five car.
“And you have to do that. You’re not going to run 15th every week and then one week nail it and have a chance to win,” he said. “You have to run in the top five on a regular basis and continue to put yourself in position to win, and in essence, you kind of have to learn how to win. There’s kind of an art to it. Which is why the guys who typically win continue to win. Everything from strategy and calling the race, to the way you race — how hard you run your car throughout the run, how you get your car set up throughout the race, and for the race. There’s so much that plays into it.
“Part of that, too, is building a foundation. A lot of these racetracks we go to, practice doesn’t really mean much for the race because we practice at these random times and the track conditions change so much. A lot of the great teams really rely on a notebook and a team like mine, we don’t have much of a notebook. We’re building ours from scratch. As we start showing back up to these tracks for a second time, and as we go into next year, we’re going to be tough once we get this foundation built.”
In evaluating the first half of the season, Almirola said things are not going as he envisioned — they’re better. Just looking to fight for top-15 finishes and a way into the playoffs, Almirola and his group have displayed top-10 speed and are sitting well within the current playoff grid.
“The good news is we’re outperforming our expectations as a new team,” Almirola said. “To have Johnny Klausmeier in his first year as a crew chief, to have my lead engineer being in his first year, a lot of the guys on the team are young. We’re just a really young team, so for me, that’s fun.
“We’re built to grow. We’re built to continue to get better and better; we’re not an old seasoned vet team, so to have the success we’re having already just means when we reach maximum potential it could be really great.”