Just one year ago, Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang, made his debut with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) with an open mind and no expectations. A new crew chief, a new team and a blank canvas of opportunity. What he didn’t know was that he was about to embark on a record year – beginning with the 60th running of the Daytona 500.
On the final restart during the closing laps of the 2018 season opener at Daytona, Almirola found himself at the front of the pack. When the green flag waved, the Tampa, Florida native took the lead and, when he looked in the rearview mirror, realized he was less than a lap away from becoming a Daytona 500 champion.
“I felt so confident,” he said. “I knew that if I hit all of my gears perfectly, I would have a shot at it and I did. I looked in my mirror and saw everyone racing side by side and figured that I was in control of the race and, if I made the right move, I was going to be the winner of the Daytona 500. About halfway down the back straightaway, they were coming with a run and I pulled over to block it. In your head, you know it’s the Daytona 500 and you’re a mile and a half away from winning, so you’re going to do everything you know to try and win that race. I pulled over to block and put a pretty aggressive block on the No. 3. I knew that if I blocked high, he was going to go low. As soon as I blocked high I knew I was going to have to immediately block low. When I blocked low, he turned against my back bumper and into the outside wall. I wrecked a mile away from winning the Daytona 500. I don’t necessarily fault him for what he did but, given the same opportunity this year, you can bet your bottom dollar I would return the favor. You’re going to do whatever it takes.”
After nearly becoming Daytona 500 champions, Almirola and the No. 10 Smithfield Ford team led by rookie crew chief Johnny Klausmeier continued their success, knocking down 17 top-10 finishes, four top-fives, led 181 laps on the year and earned their first win Oct. 14 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway to clinch a spot in the semifinal playoff round before finishing a career-best fifth in the championship. Almirola’s 181 laps led in the 2018 season were more than his previous six full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series seasons combined.
Almirola is no stranger to victory lane at the 2.5-mile Daytona superspeedway. His first Cup Series win there came in July 2014. He led 14 laps and captured the win in the rain-shortened race. In the July 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona, he led the most important lap – the final one – at the high-banked superspeedway, then added to his restrictor-plate resume with an Xfinity Series win at Talladega May 6, 2017.
“Restrictor-plate racing is about drafting and teamwork,” Almirola said. “Two cars go faster than one and four cars go faster than two. The pack as a whole goes faster than a couple of cars. The more teamwork, the faster that train will go. That win at Talladega last year was clutch and it taught us a lot about restrictor-plate racing as a team.”
Almirola will have the opportunity to knock the high-bank-racing rust off early this season during Sunday’s 75-lap, non-points Clash. He is one of 20 drivers who are eligible for the race, which invites recent Daytona 500 pole and race winners, Clash winners, and previous playoff participants. Almirola’s best finish in his three previous Clash outings is eighth place.
“The Clash is a preseason all-star race,” he said. “It’s very much a who’s who of NASCAR in that race. It’s prestigious but, at the same time, I think it’s beneficial because you get an opportunity to get a race under our belts before our ‘Super Bowl.’ Unlike other sports, our Super Bowl comes first, so it’s great to have the opportunity to get some racing under your belt.”
The Mustang driver enters the 2019 season the same way he did last year, partnered for the eighth year with Smithfield, a brand of Smithfield Foods, which is based approximately five hours northeast of SHR headquarters in Smithfield, Virginia. Founded in 1936, Smithfield is a leading provider of high-quality pork products, with a vast product portfolio including smoked meats, hams, bacon, sausage, ribs, and a wide variety of fresh pork cuts.
With no expectations other than being stronger week in and week out, Almirola and the Smithfield Ford team look to finish that final mile on a high note to turn their “Daytona 499” of 2018 into the 2019 Daytona 500 championship.
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