Aric Almirola wasn’t even supposed to be competing in the Daytona 500, after announcing his retirement at the beginning of last season, effective at the conclusion of November’s event at Phoenix Raceway.
But, I’m sure that capturing the victory in the second Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona will help him forget about that small detail.
Returning to his position as the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang this season, Almirola started the 150-mile contest from the front row, as a result of putting down the fourth-quickest qualifying time on Wednesday.
Staying in the conversation throughout the majority of the 60-lap event, the Tampa, Florida-native was able to avoid a six-car pileup that unfolded directly in front of him, while placing himself in position to secure the win.
Coming to the white flag, Almirola made a move outside of Todd Gilliland, putting himself in position to streak away when the Front Row Motorsports bobbled on the bottom of the track in the first turn.
From that point, the proper help couldn’t materialize from behind, allowing the Smithfield-sponsored driver to waltz into victory lane at Daytona International Speedway.
“Yeah, I did have my hands full. Drew [Blickensderfer] said this Smithfield Ford Mustang was going to be fast, but he said I would probably have my hands full,” Almirola said post-race. “We kind of went for it in qualifying and put on the speed in the car sacrificed some handling, and as you could see tonight it was a handful, but, man, this is so cool.”
Austin Cindric, the defending winner of the Daytona 500, finished in the runner-up position for Team Penske, which will earn him a sixth-place starting spot in Sunday’s event, just one spot worse than his starting spot last season.
Despite a quiet 60-lap endeavor, Chase Elliott would come home in third, while Brad Keselowski and Corey LaJoie completed the race’s top-five finishers.
Kyle Larson, the outside polesitter for Sunday’s 500-mile contest, took a risk staying in the pack for the duration of the event, but came home in sixth place, and more importantly, in one piece.
Despite leading the race with less than five laps remaining, Todd Gilliland was shuffled to seventh after a near-miss on the final lap of the event, which cost him and several others track position.
Martin Truex, Jr., Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Preece completed the top-10.
Contrary to the first Duel, business significantly picked up when Daniel Suarez sent an awry bump to Kyle Busch, spinning the No. 8 3CHI Chevrolet into the outside wall, in front of the entire field.
While nobody hit Busch’s No. 8, chaos ensued behind, collecting two of the three drivers fighting for a spot in the 2023 Daytona 500, Austin Hill and Travis Pastrana, who were both forced to retire from the event.
With both Hill and Pastrana out, that left room for Conor Daly and The Money Team Racing to barely sneak into the Daytona 500 – for the second year in a row – despite finishing 17th place, one lap down.
The triumph for Daly comes after a spontaneous electrical issue caused the oil line to explode on Wednesday, barring the No. 50 Chevrolet from taking time in qualifying. Then, to start the 150-mile qualifying race, the BITNILE-sponsored machine was undrivable and bounced excessively throughout the opening portion of the event.
“Well, we were inherently unlucky for the last 36 hours, but we got lucky. I wish I could have said that I drove it in on pure pace, but it was just crazy,” said Daly. “When we went out there, the car was bouncing around. I had no idea what was going on. I thought the drivetrain was broken, and Tony just made it better every time. We got lucky with the yellows to try to get some experience, but it is pretty crazy.”
With both Bluegreen Vacations Duels complete, the field for the 65th Annual Daytona 500 is officially set, and will include the 36 chartered entries, plus Jimmie Johnson, Travis Pastrana, Zane Smith, and Conor Daly.
Chandler Smith, driving a third entry for Kaulig Racing, and Austin Hill, driving for Beard Motorsports, both failed to qualify for the event. Both drivers will return to the NASCAR Cup Series several more times in 2023.