By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat was the storybook ending in Sunday’s 60th running of the Daytona 500. For Aric Almirola, he drew the short straw, losing the lead on the last lap after being turned by Austin Dillon, who won the Great American Race for the first time in his career.
“It was the last lap and we’re all trying to win the Daytona 500. It’s the biggest race of the year and it’s a career-changing race, so we were just racing really aggressively. I put every move I knew to try and stay in the lead and, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to hold on,” Almirola said after the race. “He got to my back bumper and was pushing and just hooked me. My heart is broken, but the beauty is we’ll go to Atlanta and we’ve got an incredible race team here at Stewart-Haas Racing and we’ll have another shot next week.”
On the final restart, Almirola restarted on the outside lane in second next to Denny Hamlin. Once the green flag dropped, Almirola wasted no time and ran door-to-door for almost half a lap until he received drafting help by Dillon and Darrell ‘Bubba’ Wallace, Jr. Hamlin’s inside line lost momentum after Chris Buescher lost pace and Paul Menard almost made contact.
As they came to the white flag, Dillon and Hamlin battled side-by-side and for the first time since last year’s Daytona 500, Almirola led a lap in a Cup race. Almirola switched from offense to defense in Turns 1 and 2, protecting his lead with victory in sight.
Almirola aggressively blocked Dillon at the backstretch before tucking himself back on the outside. Meanwhile, Hamlin fell out of contention after Buescher still wasn’t able to provide the necessary push to make the inside work.
Dillon made an attack on Almirola, peaking his nose on the bottom, but was quickly denied. At the end of the backstretch, Dillon bumped drafted Almirola until his left front fender clipped Almriola, sending his No. 10 Smithfield Ford head-on into the Turn 3 wall.
The rest of the field ducked low to avoid him and ended up being a single-car crash. While Dillon partied in victory lane, Almirola finished 11th and left the Halifax Medical Center heartbroken as his dream of winning the Daytona 500 in his first race at Stewart-Haas Racing vanished.
“I’m doing everything I can to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola added. “If that was lap five, I probably wouldn’t have pulled that block, but it was the last lap of the Daytona 500 and I was doing everything I could to try and win. I wanted to win the Daytona 500.”
Almirola felt Dillon wasn’t over aggressive and understood what was at stake on the last lap.
“He’s not driving too aggressively, he’s trying to win the Daytona 500 just like I was. I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola added. “I wasn’t gonna just let him have it. I wasn’t gonna 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 gonna be OK and somehow I got hooked.”
In spite of being devastated of coming up short of snapping a winless streak dating back to Daytona in July 2014, Almirola remained in good spirits and looking forward to what lies ahead in his first season at Stewart-Haas.
“I really thought we were gonna start this relationship off with Stewart Haas Racing in Victory Lane and get Smithfield and Ford and everybody to Victory Lane, but I’m really proud of everybody. That was a back up 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 gonna let that get me down,” said Almirola. “We’ve got an incredible race team and I’m gonna go to Atlanta and we’re gonna have good race cars there and we’ll have a shot to win next week. 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 gonna have a shot to go win. This is just one race. It might be the biggest race and this one is gonna hurt for a while, but I think next week we’ll have another shot.”
Almirola scored 33 points and will head to Atlanta Motor Speedway eighth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, 15 markers behind early points leader Ryan Blaney.