Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Aric Almirola did everything he possibly could to try to win Sunday’s Daytona 500, and he wasn’t about to condemn Austin Dillon for doing the exact same thing.
In a race that ended with a two-lap overtime shootout, Dillon claimed the Harley J. Earl trophy after tapping the bumper of Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and turning him into the outside wall in Turn 3 of the final lap.
Almirola failed to complete the final circuit in his damaged car and was credited with an 11th-place finish. Dillon, meanwhile, was celebrating the most significant accomplishment of his young career in Victory Lane.
Was Almirola disappointed? Of course. But in a gracious post-race interview he opted not to direct any bitterness toward Dillon.
“It was the last lap and we’re all trying to win the Daytona 500,” said Almirola, who was making his first start for Stewart-Haas Racing. “It’s the biggest race of the year, and it’s a career-changing race, so we were just racing really aggressively. I used 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.”
But did Almirola think Dillon was driving too aggressively.
“He’s not driving too aggressively, he’s trying to win the Daytona 500, just like I was,” Almirola said. “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. I wasn’t going to just let him have it.
“I wasn’t going to 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 going to be OK, and somehow I got hooked. I still haven’t seen the replay, so I don’t know what happened, but I’m just devastated.
“I really thought we were going to start this relationship off with Stewart Haas Racing in Victory Lane.”
KURT BUSCH COMES CLOSE TO SECOND STRAIGHT DAYTONA 500 VICTORY
No driver has won back-to-back Daytona 500s since Sterling Marlin accomplished the feat in 1994-1995, but Kurt Busch was close enough to taste it on Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway.
After a restart on Lap 194 of a scheduled 200, Busch bulled his way into the lead, thanks in part to a shove from Aric Almirola.
“I was feeling the magic,” acknowledged Busch, who held the top spot on laps 195 and 196.
But Ryan Blaney surged back into the lead on Lap 197, only to surrender it to Denny Hamlin on Lap 198. Busch had a run on Hamlin in Turns 1 and 2, but Hamlin moved up the track to block, breaking the momentum of Busch’s No. 41 Ford.
Running behind Busch, Blaney couldn’t check up quickly enough, and contact between his car and Busch’s turned Busch into the wall, igniting a 13-car wreck that eliminated the No. 41 and left Busch wistful about what might have been.
“I thought we could do it again back-to-back and win the Daytona 500,” Busch said. “We found the right drafting lanes, and I was making good moves. I just got caught in a Bermuda Triangle, it seemed like, when Hamlin blocked us. I hit him pretty hard and that killed a lot of my momentum.
“Maybe I should have just flung the 11 (Hamlin), but you have to treat guys with respect, and you’ve also got to throw your elbows out and you have to hold the hits when you get hit. We were close to going back-to-back in the Daytona 500, but I don’t have anything to show for it.”
RYAN BLANEY COMES UP EMPTY AFTER DOMINATING PERFORMANCE
With 11 laps left in Sunday’s Daytona 500, Ryan Blaney appeared a likely winner. He was leading a single-file line of cars around the top lane of Daytona International Speedway when the race changed dramatically.
William Byron spun off Turn 4 with a flat tire on Lap 190, causing a caution that bunched the field for a double-file restart on Lap 194. Blaney lost the lead, regained it, lost it again and ultimately sustained damaged during a 13-car melee on Lap 199, when his No. 12 Team Penske Ford turned Kurt Busch’s No. 41.
“It was just hard racing,” said Blaney, who led 118 of 207 laps but had to settle for seventh at the finish. “You say it all day. I was trying to be aggressive blocking the lead and kind of fell back and got a good run back up towards it. Man, the 11 (Denny Hamlin) blocked the 41 (Busch), and the 41 kind of went high last minute, and I was on his left rear and I turned him.
“I feel bad about that. He kind of changed lanes last-minute, and I couldn’t react quick enough. It stinks. We led a lot of laps. It just wasn’t meant to be. But it was a good showing. Hopefully we go into Atlanta and have a decent run.”