ThatsRacin

Aric Almirola returns to Daytona with Chase on his mind

Aric Almirola stands in a garage during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, July 3, 2015, in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Aric Almirola stands in a garage during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, July 3, 2015, in Daytona Beach, Fla. AP

Aric Almirola’s only NASCAR Sprint Cup victory – which came in last year’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway – was memorable to him for any number of reasons, not the least of which was the reaction of his team owner.

“It was really cool to see the gratitude and excitement on Richard (Petty’s) face when I saw him when I got back to North Carolina after winning down here,” Almirola said Friday.

Another reason? Driving the famous Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 to victory for the first time since 1999.

“It was unbelievable,” Almirola said. “I said that from the beginning of starting at (RPM) in 2012, I said that I wanted to be the guy that got the 43 car back to victory lane. That part was very special.”

Almirola’s victory, which came in a rain-shortened race that had already been delayed one day by the wet weather, gave him a place in the Chase. Without a victory this season, Almirola is 15th in the points standings (one of seven winless drivers inside the top 16), which would be good enough to land him in the 16-driver Chase without a victory. But he’d rather not take that chance.

“We have to be mindful of that,” Almirola said. “We can’t just throw caution to the wind and just go and be extremely aggressive and just whatever happens, happens. We have to be more methodical about it and need to take calculated risks for sure, but at the same time here at Daytona anything can happen.

“You can be minding your own business and end up in a wreck not of your doing. Or you can be over aggressive and cause a wreck. For us, it is about making it to close to the end and then going and racing for it.”

That’s different from 2014, when Almirola was 23rd in points entering the rainy Daytona weekend in July. Almirola was leading that Sunday after 112 laps of the scheduled 160 had been run.

“Last year … making the Chase on points wasn’t a real option for us,” Almirola said. “We could be a lot more aggressive and didn’t have anything to lose, where we do this year.”

Another byproduct of winning last year at Daytona for Almirola: A billboard on Interstate 95 near Daytona Beach is graced by his image.

“To be honest, I haven’t seen it yet,” Almirola said. “It is neat. When I was a kid I dreamed about racing; I just wanted to drive race cars because that is what I loved to do. I never thought my face would be on a billboard on the side of I-95. The fact that all of that comes along with it is great, but I am still not overly eager to be famous or a superstar. Having a billboard is just kind of a bonus, I guess.”

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