Aric Almirola started Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 in the 17th position. Staying in the low line along the bottom of the race track, Almirola jockeyed for position in his U.S. Air Force Ford for the first 40 laps, running in the high teens to the mid-twenties and reporting the handling was a bit free.
The race stayed green, and uneventful, through the first round of green-flag pit stops. Almirola came down pit road on Lap 41 for his first stop for four tires, fuel and a wedge adjustment to help tighten up the car. A quick stop by the No. 43 pit crew put Almirola back onto the track in the ninth position.
The race continued for another 40 laps under green-flag conditions, with Almirola holding steady in the top-10 and top-15. Once again he found success in the low line, hooking up with teammate Marcos Ambrose in the draft to push toward the front.
It wasn’t until the half-way mark of the 160-lap event that the caution flag waved for the first time – for a spin by Sam Hornish Jr. in the 22 car. Sitting in 10th position, Almirola asked to come down pit road for four new tires. He said he was still “just a hair” free, so crew chief Mike Ford ordered another wedge adjustment along with the tires and fuel for the team’s second stop of the night. Thanks to another quick stop by the Air Force team, Almirola took the Lap 85 restart in the seventh position.
Officials waved the yellow flag just five laps later, and this time the No. 43 Ford was involved. With Almirola once again running the bottom line, Kurt Busch in the No. 51 tried to create a middle lane between Almirola and the No. 21 car of Trevor Bayne. The space was too tight, the 43 and 51 touched, and Busch wrecked into Bayne. The contact caused minor damage to the right rear of the 43 car, sending Almirola down pit road for a yellow-flag pit stop on Lap 91. He emerged with four fresh tires, a full tank of gas and repairs to his right rear quarter panel. He took the Lap 95 restart in the 23rd position.
As the second half of the race unfolded, patience began to wear thin and drivers became more aggressive. Contact between cars on Lap 123 touched off a multi-car wreck, bringing out the third caution of the night. Ford made the call to pit for only right-side tires and one can of fuel in an effort to gain track position. The strategy put Almirola in 15th for a Lap 130 restart.
By the next caution flag – on Lap 144 for a spin by Brad Keselowski – Almirola had slid back to 23rd. This time, Ford brought him down pit road for four tires and a wedge adjustment. He restarted in 27th.
The field had barely gotten up to speed when the next multi-car wreck brought out the caution flag again on Lap 152. This time Almirola suffered flat tires from checking up to avoid a wrecking car. He limped down pit road for new tires in his final stop of the night.
The Air Force Ford restarted 17th with just three laps to go. But the final lap of the event saw the true “Big One” with 15 cars wrecking in Turn 4 in a dash for the checkers. Almirola was among the victims, taking a hard hit but able to cross the line for a 19th-place finish.
He remains 22nd in the driver point standings heading into New Hampshire next week.
Comments from Air Force driver Aric Almirola after Daytona: “I was on the bottom and the 16 came across the race track. It’s the last lap at Daytona. We probably would have ended up sixth or seventh because I was behind the 20 car, so that stinks because we were having a decent run. We had a good car most of the night. The 51 got us a little bit put behind when he tried to go three-wide, but, other than that, our car was pretty decent all night. I was just trying to be smart and not do anything stupid and got tore up there at the end.”