DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aric Almirola knew this Daytona 500 was going to be different.
The 64th annual Great American Race may be his last, the three-time Cup Series race winner having announced his retirement from full-time NASCAR racing after what will be 11 complete seasons on tour. Pre-race, Almirola was soaking in every moment with family members, close sponsor representatives and others.
Post-race, he was wishing he had one more chance after all.
Almirola took the checkered flag in fifth, avoiding chaos but feeling like he missed an opportunity to win the biggest race in NASCAR. It’s the second time he’s come this close, holding the lead on the white-flag lap in 2018 until contact with Austin Dillon propelled the No. 3 into victory lane instead.
“I wish it was a few spots better,” Almirola said of this year’s near-miss. “Man, I’ll want this one back for sure, I thought I was in a great position.”
In an overtime finish, Almirola lined up fifth, third on the inside lane behind Ryan Blaney and Bubba Wallace. And by the time the field came back around for the white flag, he was in exactly the same spot — the only difference being race leader Austin Cindric now in front of Blaney.
Almirola held that position on the backstretch but was watching Wallace yard him down the straightaway, shoving Blaney into Cindric to push the inside lane farther ahead. But once Blaney and Cindric began tandem drafting, Wallace backed up to Almirola’s nose entering turn 3. That’s when Almirola felt like he had his shot.
“I thought I had an opportunity to make a run,” Almirola said. “I just didn’t quite clear the [No.] 14 [Chase Briscoe] getting into three and he hung on my quarter panel, and I lost [Michael] McDowell, my helper, in the middle of three and four and that was really the difference. If I could have cleared the [No.] 14 and kept McDowell as my helper, I really feel like I would have had the momentum to get by those guys and get to victory lane.
“Man, I was close.”
Briscoe, of course, is Almirola’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing. But in separate lines, both drivers were on separate agendas. The balance of teamwork and every-man-for-himself was on full display and Almirola got the short end of the stick as Briscoe finished third.
But for all the disappointment Almirola felt on pit road watching Cindric celebrate, he also accepted that sometimes, a driver can make all the right moves and still come up short.
“Gosh, there’s so many moving parts,” Almirola said. “You can’t really block every run; you can’t take every run. There’s just so many things and I felt close. I felt close. I felt like I made a lot of the right moves, so I don’t have any regrets.”
The top-five finish marks Almirola’s best in the 500 since finishing fourth in 2017. It also propels the No. 10 Smithfield team into 2022 with momentum the 37-year-old driver could use heading into his final season.
About the author
Pocono Raceway is his home track and he's been attending races there since 2002. A fan since he was three years old, Zach is living out a dream covering racing, including past coverage of ARCA and IndyCar.