DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aric Almirola could smile after the 2018 Daytona 500.
Inside, he had to feel all torn to bits. He had a chance to earn the biggest race win of his career, so he threw a block that ended with a trip to the Daytona International Speedway infield medical center and an 11th-place finish Sunday evening that probably felt worse than a participation trophy.
Restrictor-plate races are notoriously known for blocks that didn’t work. Almirola’s new boss, Tony Stewart, threw an infamous block at Talladega in 2012 where no one even complained that he started the “big one” because a block is what a driver does when going for the win.
So both Almirola and Stewart could smile after this Daytona 500, a feeling that hiring Almirola to drive the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 car was the right move.
It has always felt right to Stewart, whose friendship with Almirola dates to Almirola’s days at Joe Gibbs Racing and part of a Reggie White-inspired diversity program. Stewart enjoys having his friends race for him and giving drivers he feels deserve a shot the one they need to either launch or prolong their careers.
But in picking Almirola (and, obviously, having a sponsor already in Smithfield played a role), it certainly wasn’t as if he plucked a sure thing from another team, at least as far as his résumé is concerned.
Almirola has only one career win — in the July 2014 race at Daytona — in 244 career Cup starts. That’s one win more than Danica Patrick, but it doesn’t scream automatic success. Ryan Newman had 13 career wins before joining SHR. Clint Bowyer had eight.
Of Almirola’s three Xfinity Series wins, two came on plate tracks (one at Daytona, one at Talladega). The plate tracks are maybe his greatest strength, and Almirola’s nearly tasting Daytona 500 victory doesn’t seem a surprise.
“I really thought we were going to start this relationship off with Stewart-Haas Racing in Victory Lane … but I’m really proud of everybody,” Almirola said. “That was a backup car and we were a half a lap away from winning the Daytona 500. I’m really proud of that. I’m still very excited. I’m not going to let that get me down.”
The Daytona 500 served as a sign that at least he will fit in with his new team and he appears to be settling in.
“I’ve got a lot to be happy about,” Almirola said. “I’ve got a lot to look forward to. My boss, Tony Stewart, came in the infield care center and he gave me a big hug and he said, ‘The good news is we have a whole lot more of this to look forward to.’
“We’ll move on and go to the next race.”
The truth, though, is that could have been said after Patrick’s first race with the team, where she sat on the pole for the Daytona 500 and finished eighth, and it would have seemed to make sense. That might have been one of the happiest days in what appeared to be a long five years for all sides.
The SHR team probably has more confidence in him than in Patrick. The key will be for Almirola to have consistent runs. He has always had the speed but either the lack of adjustments or the inability to rally from mistakes have plagued him.
“We’ve got an incredible race team, and I’m going to go to Atlanta and we’re going to have good race cars there and we’ll have a shot to win next week,” Almirola said. “That’s something I’ve not had in my career, where I feel like every week I get on the plane to go to the race track I feel like we’re going to have a shot to go win.
“This is just one race. It might be the biggest race and this one is going to hurt for a while, but I think next week we’ll have another shot.”
That is a bold statement. He has only one career top-10 in seven Atlanta starts. He has no top-10s in Cup at Vegas and none at Fontana, two of the three races that follow Atlanta. Combine that with the perceived potential struggles for Ford, and many questions still remain.
Plus, he knows this disappointment will stick with him for a little bit. No normal person could put the disappointment from Sunday behind him or her in just a few days.
But that last-lap move proved Almirola will do anything to win, which is just what SHR wants in its drivers.
“I wasn’t going to just let him have it,” Almirola said. “I wasn’t going to just stay on the bottom and let him rail the outside, so I blocked and he got to my bumper and pushed and I thought I was still going to be OK and somehow I got hooked.”
Somehow, Almirola ended up with an 11th-place finish.
Turning the somehows into victories will be the key whether Almirola achieves success at SHR or has a career of nearlys and almosts.