DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup Finals last Fall. The Tampa Bay Rays made it all the way to the World Series right after. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last Sunday. Well, Tampa’s Aric Almirola just won the first Duel at the Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night and is hoping to turn that into a Daytona 500 triumph on Sunday.
Almirola, took over the lead for the final time on Thursday night after the first and only round of pit stops on Lap 37. He never looked back in leading the final 24 laps en route to his first career Duel victory. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver narrowly held off the pack though as Joey Logano made a final charge at the victory in Turn 3 on the final lap.
Logano was there but Almirola used a great side draft at the exit of the fourth turn to beat Christopher Bell by just .041-seconds in his No. 10 Ford.
“I knew Joey was going to come with a run,” said Almirola. “I knew somebody was going to come with a run, I figured it would be Joey. He’s really good at that stuff. I saw him back up a couple times just to kind of see and gauge what he had, where his run was going to come.
“I knew he would come with a run probably at one to go. It’s too risky to do it much earlier than that. I just knew I wanted to try to move around before he started his run to try and mess up his run or get him off on thinking which way he was going to go.
“I was able to do that to where I could at least get him going in a direction that I knew he was going to go opposite of me rather than me guessing where he was going to go.
“I felt like I did everything I could. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop his run. I wasn’t going to be able to just blatantly block him. That would probably cause a wreck. Our race car was way too fast. I wasn’t going to concede the win, but I certainly wasn’t going to get my really fast Smithfield Ford Mustang tore up trying to be overly defensive.
“I made a move one way, then I blocked the top. He got to my inside. I was able to just side draft him and pull him back to where he couldn’t clear me.”
Almirola, now looks like a legitimate Daytona 500 contender as he also qualified third overall on Wednesday night.
“I would say it’s every bit comparable,” Almirola said on his car compared to the past. “I feel like the car we had down here my first year with SHR in 2018 was extremely fast and capable of winning. I led the last three quarters of the lap that I needed to lead to win the Daytona 500. I just didn’t lead the last 25% of the lap.
“Yeah, I’ve been down here with extremely fast Ford Mustangs every time I’ve come with Stewart-Haas Racing. They have an incredible program from top to bottom. Their speedway stuff has notoriously been very good. Seems like every time we show up for the Daytona 500 we have a car capable of winning.”
He said his confidence level is high now after winning his Duel, especially after as he said in making a statement by leading 52 of the 60 laps run.
“It just gives us a lot of confidence,” he said. “We know we have a fast car. It drives really well. It handles well. It pushes. It gets pushed well. All of the things that are important to be successful at Daytona. Gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence going into the race on Sunday.
“But there’s so much that can happen in this race that’s out of your control. I feel like so far we’ve done everything that we can do to maximize what we’re in control of. That’s all we can do. We’ll do the same thing on Sunday.
“We’ll execute, we’ll have a really fast race car obviously after seeing how it performed tonight, then we just got to do all the little things right on Sunday. We’ve got to execute on pit road, we’ve got to have the right strategy, no mistakes, then hope that you don’t get caught up in somebody else’s mess.
“It’s a big statement, it really is. That is hard to do at these speedway races. Most oftentimes when you’re the leader, you are the sitting duck. It’s hard to lead that many laps and win the race. Usually when you lead that many laps, everybody behind you figuring out how to mount a charge, and you end up losing the race in the last lap.
“I was glad that we were able to defend that run and make sure that we got our Smithfield Ford Mustang in Victory Lane, which is where it deserved to be after putting on that kind of dominant performance.”
Almirola, should have won this race in 2018 but was spun by Austin Dillon on the final lap, a half of a track away from the checkered flag. He has two career Cup Series win, both coming on superspeedway’s at that.
He’s a legitimate favorite to win this year’s Great American Race.