Three years ago, Aric Almirola was in prime contention to win the Daytona 500, leading with a half a lap to go until contact with Austin Dillon knocked Almirola into the outside backstretch wall and out of contention. Three years later, Almirola might be in the best position he has been in to redeem himself.
Almirola starts third in Sunday’s Daytona 500, a starting spot he earned by winning his Duel in dominant fashion. Almirola led 49 of the last 51 laps to win his Duel over Christopher Bell, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.
On the final lap, Almirola showed his strength. Facing a challenge from Logano being pushed by Bell in turn three, Almirola maneuvered a side draft move by himself to clear Logano exiting turn four, cruising to his first Duel win.
Almirola’s speed and superspeedway prowess is strong and the 36-year-old veteran has the results to back it up.
Almirola’s two Cup wins have come at superspeedways, including a win at Daytona in July 2014. At Daytona’s sister track, Talladega, Almirola has just one finish outside of the Top 10 in the last nine races there. In last year’s Daytona 500, Almirola also led six laps and was in contention to win before being collected in a wreck with 16 laps to go.
While last year’s Daytona 500 was not remarkable for Almirola, it highlights the changing nature of superspeedway racing at Daytona and Talladega. The advent of the higher-downforce superspeedway package has led to tighter racing toward the front, resulting in more-frequent wrecks occurring, according to data by motorsportsanalytics.net.
For example, a driver running third, in a race from 2013-2016, had a near-zero crash inclusion rate at Daytona. In stark contrast, it has jumped to a 50% inclusion rate for a third-place driver in a race from 2017-2020. Even for the leader, the crash inclusion rate has jumped from 5.26% to 26.92% when comparing the two periods.
Being toward the back has become a safer place to run. However, there comes a schism with the anticipation of a wreck and the anticipation of winning each at the forefront of drivers’ minds, as Almirola pointed out.
“Yeah, it’s hard. You got to be aggressive to run up front,” Almirola stated after his Thursday night Duel win, “It’s really hard to win from 15th. You can’t just drive up through the field and go win.
So when you ride around in the back, you really are relying on the leaders and the guys up front wrecking. When they don’t wreck, you end up looking kind of foolish and you run bad and you finish bad.
It really is a high-speed chess match from start to finish. You have to figure out how aggressive you’re willing to be and how daring of situations you’re willing to put your car and yourself in to try and get to the front.”
Almirola currently holds a 77-race winless streak, dating back to his last Cup win at Talladega in October 2018.
Aric Almirola will look to earn SHR their second Harley J. Earl driving his No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET; TV: FOX; Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).