Aric Almirola will be looking for redemption, and perhaps to return the favor, next weekend in the Daytona 500.
Almirola got the short end of the stick last season when Austin Dillon and the No. 3 returned to Victory Lane in the prestigious event. Leading on the final lap, Almirola attempted to block Dillon’s run going into Turn 3 only to end up wrecked. Dillon won and Almirola, while heartbroken, understood what happened.
“I wrecked a mile away from winning the Daytona 500,” Almirola said. “I don’t necessarily fault him for what he did but, given the same opportunity this year, you can bet your bottom dollar I would return the favor. You’re going to do whatever it takes.”
Looking back on how the last few laps of the 2018 race unfolded, Almirola said he felt “so confident.” Focused on getting through the gears smoothly when he restarted second on the overtime restart, Almirola cleared Denny Hamlin for the race lead on the backstretch.
“I looked in my mirror and saw everyone racing side by side and figured that I was in control of the race and, if I made the right move, I was going to be the winner of the Daytona 500,” he recalled. “About halfway down the back straightaway, they were coming with a run, and I pulled over to block it. In your head, you know it’s the Daytona 500, and you’re a mile and a half away from winning, so you’re going to do everything you know to try and win that race.
“I pulled over to block and put a pretty aggressive block on the No. 3. I knew that if I blocked high, he was going to go low. As soon as I blocked high, I knew I was going to have to immediately block low. When I blocked low, he turned against my back bumper and into the outside wall.”
Almirola was listed with an 11th-place finish. In his eight previous Daytona 500 starts, he has a best finish of fourth in 2017. However, he does know what winning at Daytona feels like, having earned his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in the 2014 summer race.
Almirola is also the most recent winner on a restrictor-plate track. In last season’s playoffs, he won at Talladega Superspeedway, ironically enough with a last-lap pass.
“Restrictor-plate racing is about drafting and teamwork,” he said. “Two cars go faster than one, and four cars go faster than two. The pack as a whole goes faster than a couple of cars. The more teamwork, the faster that train will go. That win at Talladega last year was clutch, and it taught us a lot about restrictor-plate racing as a team.”