Almirola wasn’t even supposed to be here, now he’s a winner in the 2nd Duel, his thoughts on the missing piece – a Daytona 500 crown

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The second Bluegreen Duel in Daytona packed much more entertainment in the 60 lap race than it’s counterpart. 15 lead changes among 6 drivers including 3 of which in the final five laps.

Aric Almirola however, had the car to beat and he made all the right moves to position his No. 10 Ford in the front of the pack coming to the end. Todd Gilliland got too big of a push from Kyle Larson who also was getting shoved from behind by Brad Keselowski which as a result, got Gilliland loose exiting the tri-oval. That separation allowed Almirola to prevail ahead and he was unchallenged on his route to his second career Duels victory, each coming in the last three years.

Almirola crossed the stripe .122-seconds ahead of last year’s Daytona 500 champion, Austin Cindric.

“Yeah, I did have my hands full,” Almirola said. “Drew (Blinkensderfer, crew chief) said this Smithfield Ford Mustang was going to be fast, but he said I would probably have my hands full. We kind of went for it in qualifying and put on the speed in the car sacrificed some handling, and as you could see tonight it was a handful, but, man, this is so cool.”

That alone should have his 39 other competitors in Sunday’s 65th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) shaking in their firesuits. This car wasn’t setup for race trim and he still won.

See, without any practice until Friday evening, you have to endure qualifying and a qualifying race before you can adjust these cars. These are impound days. What you race tonight is what you brought down for qualifying. As a result, some teams punt on qualifying and want to have a good “race” car for the pair of 150-mile qualifiers.

Almirola’s team had too much pride to do that. They were fourth quickest last February. They wanted to break that Hendrick front row party up. They came just short.

However, they got the last laugh on Thursday night by Almirola leading five times for 17 laps.

“We knew that last year we qualified fourth and Drew put everything he could into it,” Almirola admitted. “We’re trying to break up that Hendrick front row.

“Drew and all the guys on my team take a lot of pride in building fast race cars. There’s two approaches to coming down here for Speedweeks. One is to not worry about qualifying and just make your car drive good so it’ll race good in the Duels, or two, you go for speed.

“Drew and I talked about it a month ago, and he’s like, I want to build the fastest race car I can. We’ll make it drive good after the Duels. But I want to go try and knock those Hendrick guys off the front row, and dangit, we couldn’t do it. I think we came up seven thousandths short or something like that, but still really proud of the effort that we put into bringing a really fast race car.”

Almirola says that approach led to his No. 10 Ford being a handful. It didn’t handle the greatest. Was sketchy while being pushed in the draft and the Florida native felt like it made him vulnerable at times. However, even with a car in race trim, it was still bad fast.

“I just felt like we had such a fast race car that if I got the right pushes at the right time and found myself in the right position, that we could win that Duel and we could go to work tonight, tomorrow, and make it drive a little better for the Daytona 500,” he continued.

“But it was just a really fast race car, and the only way you can be aggressive and make those moves is to have a fast race car, and Drew and the guys brought me one.”

Now, he has a very realistic shot at a Daytona 500 victory on Sunday in what will mark his 13th Great American Race.

“Daytona is such a special place to me,” said Almirola. “I’ve grew up sitting in those grandstands dreaming about racing here. I want that one on Sunday, though. My boss up in the booth during that first Duel, he said, I’ve won this race three times, but yet to do it on Sunday.

“I know Sunday is the big one. We’re going to keep focused on that one. The job is not finished. I’ve won the Duel before. I think it was a couple years ago, and I just know that it’s just one part of Speedweeks. It’s not the ultimate goal.

I take a lot of pride in winning the race tonight, but don’t want to get too excited too soon. It’s just one part of Speedweeks, and it gives us a great starting spot, gives us a great pit selection, but Sunday is the real prize.

“I mean, I finished top 5 here a few times. I’ve found myself in position. I was leading on the white flag lap in 2018 going down the back straightaway. That one got away.

“I’ve found myself in the top three or four cars coming to the white flag.

“Yeah, I’ve been in position for the Daytona 500 maybe a handful of times and not gotten it done, but yet I’ve gotten it done in an Xfinity car here, I’ve gotten it done in the Duels. I won the race in July here.

“So yeah, it does seem like the Harley J. Earl Trophy is the one box left to check.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 16: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, and Todd Gilliland, driver of the #38 gener8tor Skills Ford, ll during the NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Almirola says that it’s even remarkable that he’s still sitting here celebrating this win. This time last year, the Tampa native was gearing up for what was going to be his final Daytona 500 start. He announced that he was retiring at season’s end. However, as the year went along, so did his feelings. Almirola changed his mind and signed a new contract to come back for another go at it with SHR.

Now, he’s in victory lane again in Daytona.

“Just really proud. So thankful. I’m not even supposed to be here,” he continued. “I’m supposed to be retired. This is awesome.”

Almirola said that in a sense that he feels like it’s just this huge blessing that he got literally gifted more opportunity than what he thought he had. When he announced his retirement was coming, he felt like he wasn’t retiring because he felt like he had no more gas in the tank. That wasn’t it. He was not retiring because he felt like he was not at the peak anymore.

“Like I still feel like I can compete at the highest level,” he notes. “I still feel like I’m as good a race car driver as I’ve ever been. I feel like I have great people around me. All of those things.

“I literally was making a sacrifice for my career to make sure that I was doing the right thing for my family, as a husband and as a father. I had put so much thought into it and I had come to the conclusion that 20 years from now sitting around the table for Thanksgiving, being at the table with some trophies is not nearly as much fun as being around the table with your family and your loved ones.

“I was okay with giving up on my dreams and stop chasing career and trying to achieve success and all those things purely to make sure that I was doing the right thing by my family.

“It was not a decision based on no more gas in the tank, don’t feel like I can compete anymore, none of those things. I still feel like I can compete like I did tonight, and I feel like I can win races. I feel like I have a lot to contribute to our organization. I feel like I can get the job done on any given weekend.

“Yeah, I’m excited about this year. I want to make it count. I want to win races. I still want to compete at a high level like I always have, and as long as they’re having fun going with me and my wife still gives me the green light, we’re going to keep it going.

“Like I made the announcement that I’m going to step away so I could focus more on them and be with them and not make Alex and Abby and my wife sacrifice so much of their life for me to keep doing what I was doing and keep chasing my dreams.

“Last year we went through the year and we’re like, man, we’re really just going to embrace it. We’re going to take it all in and travel as much as we can together as a family. They came to 28 races last year.

“We did so many touristy things in every city we went to. We went to five or six baseball games in different cities and we went sightseeing. We went to Jamestown and Williamsburg when we were in Richmond. We’ve done a lot of different stuff together as a family.

“Last year was so fun because of that. So when I started getting asked in the summertime from Smithfield and the race team if I would reconsider, and I talked with Janice and I talked with the kids, they’re like, yes, we want you to keep going. I was like, are you sure? They are like, yes, we do. This is fun. We want you to keep doing this.

“For me as a husband and as a father, it made me feel like, okay, like I’m not sacrificing their lives and their hopes and dreams following me around. They’re willingly a part of this. We won’t grow apart if I keep doing this because I’m still chasing my dreams.

“When I got asked after I announced that I was done to reconsider, it was like, that’s amazing. Like I have another opportunity that I never thought that I would have, so I want to make it count. I want to take every single race and every single weekend and make it count, both on the track and off the track with my family, with my crew guys, with my sponsors, with the people in the garage area.

“That’s kind of been my theme as I’ve looked forward to this season is just make every single weekend count.”

So far, he is..

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