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Daytona 500 finish looms over Aric Almirola but a bigger concern exists

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 60th Annual Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, has an on track incident during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 60th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A few more days remain, then maybe the questions will become less frequent.

But until the green flag waves on next weekend’s Daytona 500, Aric Almirola will be quizzed about how his heart broke a mile from winning NASCAR’s biggest race a year ago.

In his first race with Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola led the field on the final lap. Austin Dillon charged from the outside line. Almirola blocked. Dillon moved low and then went high. Almirola tried to block but was too late. The contact sent Almirola into the Turn 3 wall and Dillon on to the victory.

Almirola was grace and class in interviews afterward but he admits it was not how he felt.

“Did I ever have a moment where behind closed doors I stomped my feet and hit some things? Maybe,” Almirola said to laughter Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. “In that time, in that moment, it was more important for me to go out and be a good representative 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.”

That race foreshadowed his playoff victory last fall at Talladega Superspeedway. Stewart-Haas Racing dominated, leading 80 percent of the race. Almirola took the lead on the final lap when teammate Kurt Busch ran out of fuel. Almirola went on to finish a career-high fifth in the points.

“Coming off of winning the last restrictor-plate race certainly gives our team a lot of confidence,” Almirola said. “These are the same rules we had at Talladega with this car, so the new kind of unknown is the Mustang, but, so far, with the few laps of practice I feel like we’re kind of picking right up where we left off.”

But the key is to win more often this season. Almirola looks back to last season and said he had a chance to win six races but won only once.

“My son, I told him I was excited about getting ready to go to Daytona Thursday night before we flew down here Friday morning, and he said, ‘Daddy, I sure hope you win more than just one race next year,’ Almirola said.

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