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Aric Almirola endures more late-race heartbreak as another win slips away at Dover

DOVER, Del. — Aric Almirola isolated himself by his car, dejected after another cruel ending washed the latest attempt at his long-sought-after second career Cup Series win. His head sulked, perhaps rerunning every single moment of heartbreak through his mind that was overwhelmed with agony.

Just a few hundred yards away, Chase Elliott, his car steaming from a jubilant burnout, puttered into Victory Lane. Mere minutes later, smoke and confetti unfurled and the loud ecstasy of Elliott and his No. 9 team echoed throughout pit road. Almirola lifted his head and watched it all.

“I want to be there,” Almirola said. “I want to be in Victory Lane.”

If it wasn’t for a caution with seven laps to go, that would have been Almirola — celebrating amidst the smoke and confetti, hoisting Miles the Monster in Victory Lane. And that’s not even half of the story. It would have halted a 149-race winless streak spanning four years and relinquished numerous shortcomings, at least three races where Almirola felt he had the best car but failed to close the deal.

“They don’t give any trophies away for shoulda, woulda, couldas,” said Almirola, who was instead bombarded by reporters after a 13th-place finish in a race he led 64 of the final 75 laps — all but the final seven of regulation and four that went into overtime.

Almirola elected to pit under caution with seven laps to go to slap on four fresh Goodyear Eagles — “We wanted to be on offense like we’ve talked about all year,” Almirola said — but he restarted sixth after three drivers stayed out and two went with two tires. Then, on the following restart with three to go, he tried to make something happen but bounced it off the backstretch wall and collided into Keselowski, thus ending any chance at the win, let alone a top-five finish.

“I was going for it off of [Turn] 2,” Almirola said. “I didn’t check out of the throttle. … I wanted to go to Victory Lane. Thought for sure we were going to go to Victory Lane.

“Feel like we should be over there in Victory Lane celebrating and we’re not.”

For his first 10 years in the Cup Series, from age 23 to 33, Almirola either bounced around in pedestrian part-time gigs or labored for top 20s every week once he finally got a full-time shot. Over his first 30 races with Joe Gibbs Racing (one-off deal), James Finch and Dale Earnhardt Inc., he finished in the top 10 on one occasion. At Richard Petty Motorsports, he won just once and finished in the top five 11 times over a six-year span. After 10 years of toil to finally get his cuts in a top-tier ride at Stewart-Haas, Almirola is yearning to experience the ecstasy of multiple wins and the buzz of competing for titles that he never got in that long first decade.

“That’s the hard part. I’m so grateful for this opportunity,” Almirola said. “I’m a really lucky guy. I could be complaining about running 25th. Instead, I’m complaining about cars that are capable of winning and not going to Victory Lane. So, there are worse problems to have but I feel like, man, once we break through and finally win we’ll start winning a lot of races.”

He’s been close and has 12 top 10s in 30 races, but Almirola hasn’t won since he pulled through in the 2014 Coke Zero 400 for Richard Petty.

He was leading the Daytona 500 going into the second-to-last turn, before Austin Dillon punted him into the fence. At Chicagoland, Almirola led 70 of 267 laps and felt he had the best car, but pit road issues turned a winning day into 25th. At Loudon, Almirola was winning until he misfired on a late-race restart. Another winnable opportunity went by the wayside at Bristol when the power steering faltered.

“I could go back to a handful of races where I thought we should’ve won,” Almirola said. “We’ve just battled some sort of demon to get to Victory Lane that we can’t get past.”

Then on Sunday, another opportunity fell into Almirola’s lap. He was running second for the majority of the last half of the race to teammate Kevin Harvick, who faltered on a green flag pit stop with 70 laps, yielding Almirola the lead. He then opened up a 1.6-second advantage on Kurt Busch until more misfortune doomed a breakthrough day.

“Should have won,” Almirola. “We were the best car after Harvick’s issue.”

Almirola doesn’t regret the decision to stay out with seven to go, because if he did, then “I’m a sitting duck.”

“It just didn’t work out,” Almirola said.

A shot to get to the Championship Four quickly spiraled into Almirola being 10 points off the cutline with two races left in the Round of 12 and six left in 2018. Asked if late-race mishaps catch up to Almirola in the car, making him second-guess more than he’d like, he said, “No. But it definitely makes me be aware that low and behold, something is going to happen and the caution is going to come out. That it’s not going to be that easy. So, hopefully, one of these days, it’s a little bit more easy and we go green at the end. … Or maybe we’ll win one we don’t deserve. Sometimes that happens: You lose races you deserve to win and then win races you feel like you shouldn’t win.”

On Sunday, Almirola lost another he probably should’ve won. Harvick could say the same, but his sting isn’t nearly on the same level as Almirola, who was left in agony after another bitter defeat.

“I want to be over there [in Victory Lane],” Almirola said. “It’s a hard one to swallow.”

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