DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – As the only Florida native in the 2018 Daytona 500 field, Tampa’s Aric Almirola came one lap away from winning the sport’s greatest race last year. After taking the white flag and holding off the field, Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang was hit by Austin Dillon’s No 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on the back straightaway, spinning Almirola out and sending Dillon on to take the checkered flag.
It was a heart-breaking finish for Almirola, who was making his first start for the Stewart-Haas Racing team. But the strong run in the Daytona 500 was a harbinger of good things to come. Almirola qualified for the Playoffs, won a Playoff race at Talladega, Ala. and ultimately finished a career-high fifth in the Monster Energy Series final points standings – ahead of all drivers except the Championship 4 contenders.
“Did I ever have a moment where behind closed doors I stomped my feet and hit some things? Maybe,’’ Almirola said with a smile this week at Daytona International Speedway. “In that time, in that moment, it was more important for me to go out and be a good representation for my sponsors and my partners and my kids.
“My kids were sitting back in my motorhome watching on TV like the rest of the world, so at that time it was an opportunity for me to be a good role model for my kids. You’ve got to be a good sport and sometimes things don’t always go your way. You’ve got two choices. You can either keep your head high and take the high road, or you can pout and piss and moan and the sponsors usually like the first one.
Almirola conceded, however, that the performance did set the tone for the 2018 season – a career year as it turned out.
“I think one thing that we took away from the Daytona 500 is we instantly, in the very first race, all had confidence in each other,’’ Almirola said. “New driver to the team. New crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier leading that team. Several new guys on the team. We’re all really young. … That makes it fun, but there’s also a lot of growing to do and newness, so instantly in that very first race it was like, ‘Hey, we can do this.’
“This is only race one and they’re gonna have to deal with us the rest of the year. This is only the beginning and we kind of fed off that and we used that as a motivator and that kept our heads down and made us just fight even harder and grind, and I think that it pulled us together.”