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With Almirola’s future in the NASCAR Cup Series uncertain after the 2023 season, this year’s 500 may be his final chance to come away with a win in one of motorsports’ crown jewel events.
“First off, Daytona is always exciting for me. It’s my home race track, having grown up just two hours away in Tampa,” said Almirola, 38. “I have a lot of childhood memories from going there with my family.
“To top it off, I’ve won there both in Xfinity and Cup cars. I just have a tremendous amount of fond memories of spectating at Daytona, even all the way back to my beginning days. I would go back and go-kart in Daytona. It’s always exciting because it brings back all those great memories.
“Not to mention, it’s the world center of racing. It’s the greatest place on earth to go race at. It’s the biggest race of the year, the one everyone wants to win. Your name is forever etched in history. There’s just no other race like it.”
Race winner Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang
Photo by: Lesley Ann Miller / Motorsport Images
Almirola came precariously close to capturing a win in the 500 in the 2018 event.
As he was leading the field to the checkered flag, Almirola made an aggressive block on the No. 3 car of Austin Dillon before he was turned into the outside wall, ending his bid. Dillon went on to win the race.
In last year’s Daytona 500, Almirola showed strength by running at the front of the field on occasion, ultimately bringing home a fifth place finish.
The first of Almirola’s three career Cup wins came in the July race at Daytona, which helped the track leave an indelible mark on Almirola’s NASCAR career.
“When I strap in for the Daytona 500, it is an exhilarating feeling,” Almirola said. “All of your senses are on high alert. There are 150,000 people on the property and millions watching at home. It is such an unreal feeling.
“You’ve got butterflies in your stomach, but not the nervous kind. It’s more of an antsy, ready-to-go feeling. There’s been all this hype and build-up during preseason and Speedweek, and finally you’re at the moment where you’re going to roll off pit road and go to battle.”
An unexpected return
Almirola’s appearance in this season’s 500 is a bonus of sorts.
Last year, he announced that he would step down from fulltime racing following the 2022 season. But through the course of the year, he discovered a new balance between his passion for racing and dedication to his family.
Smithfield Foods, the primary sponsor on Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, broached the subject of Almirola returning to fulltime racing in 2023. Last August, Almirola made his decision to return official.
He started last season as the only Cup Series driver with three consecutive top-10 finishes and earned his fourth series pole at Bristol, Tenn., last September. He ended the year with two top-five and seven top-10 finishes and wound up 20th in the series standings.
Entering the 2023 season, Almirola said he feels “more prepared than I ever have.”
“I’m just excited for a new season in general. Every year, at this time of the year, it’s just exciting and it’s a land of opportunity. Every single weekend is a new opportunity to go win,” he said.
“I think that’s what I’m looking forward to the most, just coming back for another year with the same crew chief and the same group of guys and trying to go compete at a higher level and win races.”