Aric Almirola’s position through 16 races this season is different than heading into Daytona International Speedway a year ago.
The biggest difference? The Tampa, Fla., native can call himself a Sprint Cup winner. Almirola claimed his first victory in last year’s rain-shortened Coke Zero 400. It also gave the No. 43 its first win since 1999.
“I said that from the beginning of starting at Richard Petty Motorsports in 2012, I said that I wanted to be the guy that got the 43 car back to victory lane,” Almirola said Friday at Daytona. “That part was very special. 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.”
Because of that win, Almirola locked himself into his first Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“Last year, I think we were 23rd in points at this time and really 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 this year we do.”
Almirola currently is 15th in the points standings, putting him inside the 16-car cutoff for the Chase with 10 races left in the regular season. Almirola and his team are in the position of either racing for the win or racing for points, both of which are challenges in restrictor-plate racing.
“We have to be mindful of that and can’t just throw caution to the wind and just go and be extremely aggressive and just whatever happens, happens,” Almirola said. “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. You can be overaggressive and cause a wreck. For us, it is about making it to close to the end and then going and racing for it.”
Almirola feels confident he will be able race for it when the time comes Sunday. He’ll be driving the winning car from last year. It also is the car he drove to a 15th at Talladega two months ago.
Another change for Almirola involves how his cars are being prepared this season. Over the winter, RPM moved into a shop twice the size of its previous home, and the team is hanging its own bodies, which allows for more assertiveness over creativity and quality control.
“We used to depend on Roush (Fenway Racing) for everything,” Almirola said. “They would give us a car, we would basically assemble it and go race it. Now we have a lot more control in our hands. It is a lot more up to us, and I think that has made us a lot more consistent of a race team.”
Through 16 races, Almirola has averaged a finish of 17.1, which would be a career-best pace through four full-time seasons in Sprint Cup.
“I have been extremely proud of the consistency we have had this year,” Almirola said. “We haven’t had the sheer speed that we need, and we know that. We are not oblivious to that.”
Though he hasn’t seen it in person, Almirola is aware of another change courtesy of his Coke Zero 400 win.
There is a billboard with his face next to I-95, which runs down Florida’s east coast through St. Augustine, Daytona Beach and ends in Miami.
“I am still not overly eager to be famous or be a superstar,” Almirola said. “I just want to drive race cars, and I want to win races, and I am a fierce competitor, so having a billboard on I-95 is just kind of a bonus, I guess.”