'Heartbroken' Aric Almirola doesn't blame Austin Dillon for Daytona 500 punt
Aric Almirola was remarkably composed just moments after losing the Daytona 500 in the most heartbreaking and dramatic fashion possible.
The 33-year-old was leading with one lap to go but was forced to block both lanes on the backstretch to maintain his advantage. He blocked Austin Dillon on the high side, then Denny Hamlin on the bottom, before blocking Dillon again up top.
Dillon went low to pass and Almirola responded, spinning off the bumper of Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet. Dillon went on to win the race and Almirola was forced to wonder “what if” in the infield care center. But instead of criticizing Dillon for turning him into the wall, Almirola took equal blame and said the incident was a byproduct of racing for the win in the sport’s biggest race.
“It was the last lap and we’re all trying to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola said. “It’s the biggest race of the year and it’s a career-changing race, so we were just racing really aggressively. I put every move I knew to try and stay in the lead and, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to hold on.
“He got to my back bumper and was pushing and just hooked me. My heart is broken, but the beauty is we’ll go to Atlanta and we’ve got an incredible race team here at Stewart-Haas Racing and we’ll have another shot next week.”
Almirola repeated over and over, while standing outside of the infield care center, that he didn’t think Dillon was overaggressive. In fact, Almirola admitted to blocking the eventual winner.
“I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola said. “I wasn’t gonna just let him have it. I wasn’t gonna just stay on the bottom and let him rail the outside, so I blocked and he got to my bumper and pushed and I thought I was still gonna be okay and somehow I got hooked.”
This was Almirola’s debut race with Stewart-Haas Racing after spending the previous six seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports. This will be the first time in his career that Almirola will be in a championship-caliber organization.
The fact that he nearly kicked off the partnership with a victory left him smiling on Sunday night, even if he was ultimately heartbroken.
“I’ve got an incredible opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing and Smithfield and everybody’s support at Ford, so I’ve got a lot to be happy about,” Almirola said. “I’ve got a lot to look forward to. My boss, Tony Stewart, came in the infield care center and he gave me a big hug and he said, ‘The good news is we have a whole lot more of this to look forward to.’ We’ll move on and go to the next race.”