Aric Almirola relishing what may - or may not - be his last Daytona 500
When the checkered flag falls in November at Phoenix Raceway, Aric Almirola will no longer be a full-time driver. That much, we know.
But as he prepares to start his final NASCAR Cup Series season Sunday at the Daytona 500, will it be his last run at winning “The Great American Race”?
No one knows. Including him.
“You never know what the future holds,” Almirola said this week after mentioning he may need a “hall pass” from wife, Janice, and their children.
“I came down here before thinking that it could be my last in years past, like when you don’t have a contract going past that year.
“You never really know when it is gonna be your last Daytona 500. I got my eyes open to that. When I wrecked at Kansas and broke my back, I wasn’t sure if that was gonna be the end of my career there as well.”
Since that accident, Almirola has become a regular in the Cup Series playoffs as a member of Stewart-Haas Racing. He earned his fourth consecutive playoff berth last season thanks to an upset win in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
With a new crew chief in Drew Blickensderfer, Almirola wants to keep that run going in 2022. Especially if that includes earning multiple wins, something he’s never done in a Cup season.
But in this final full-time run, Almirola also wants to make sure he enjoys the overall experience.
“I could show you my itinerary for the Daytona 500 Speedweek this week and literally, my schedule is broken down into a minute-by-minute schedule,” he explained. “So I just reminded myself driving through the tunnel (Tuesday) morning like, ‘Slow down. Take it all in. Embrace it.’
“What we get to do is incredible. I get to drive a race car for a living, and I’m tremendously blessed to do that. It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another thing to kind of slow down and kind of embrace it and live it, and that’s kind of my goal for this week and going into this year.”
One thing he says he isn’t dwelling on his near-miss at the “500" back in 2018.
In that race, Almirola took the lead in overtime and was in command at the white flag. But on the final lap, contact from behind by Austin Dillon sent him hard into the Turn 3 wall. Dillon went on to win.
While he’d love to have a “500" win on his resume, the Florida native already has several Daytona trophies in his case.
He earned his first career Cup win at Daytona in 2014. Two years later, he got an Xfinity Series win there. And last year, he scored a Daytona Duel win.
Each time, he marveled over winning at the track where he watched races as a child with family members, including his grandfather, former sprint car racer Sam Rodriguez.
To him, that feeling means even more.
“I know where Victory Lane is,” he said. “I’m very familiar with it, but I’ve not won a Daytona 500 and it would be very special.
“But at the end of the day, trophies collect dust, and I don’t put all my stock and all my weight in being a Daytona 500 champion.”