It’s been a season of highs and lows for Richard Petty Motorsports veteran Aric Almirola. Fresh off of two solid years in 2014 and 2015, the first of which led to a Chase berth, Almirola and RPM have struggled to find speed and consistency in 2016.
After finishing inside of the top 20 in points for four-straight seasons, Almirola sits 26th in the standings with only five races remaining until the Chase. In the midst of such a trying season, the Floridian has found one reprieve in the form of an XFINITY Series win at his home track, Daytona International Speedway, with underdog team Biagi-Denbeste Racing. While Almirola had a prior XFINITY win to his credit, Daytona marked the first victory in which he’d actually finished out the race.
While waiting out the rain that filled the weekend at Kentucky Speedway, Frontstretch caught up with Almirola to talk about the challenge of searching for speed and working with new teammates and what it was like to have his family with him in Victory Lane.
Aaron Bearden, Frontstretch.com: What was it like to earn an XFINITY Series win at Daytona?
Aric Almirola: It was very special for a lot of reasons. One, getting a win in the XFINITY Series and feeling like I got the credit for it, I was actually in the race car, and I actually deserved it. That was big.
To have my family there was really special. I won in 2014 at Daytona – my first Cup race- and they weren’t there. They stayed home. Abby, my daughter was really young still, so they weren’t able to be there. So to have that opportunity to go to Victory Lane with my wife and my two kids, and go there as a family, that was really special.
Then, to get Fred Biagi, Bill and Lori Denbeste to Victory Lane. They hadn’t been to Victory Lane since 2004, when Fred owned the team by himself, and that was the only win that they ever had in the series. To get them to Victory Lane with that group of guys that work tremendously hard and do it as a part-time team was a big deal. And obviously we get a lot of support from the people and fans from Florida, because I’m from Florida. But to have a sponsor that’s from Florida as well, Fresh from Florida, that represents all of the farmers and agricultural growers in the state of Florida, it was really cool to do that in Daytona.
Bearden: To double back, what was the moment like for you to see your family in Victory Lane, knowing they were with you and you’ll always have that memory with them?
Almirola: That was really cool. To be able to have the pictures of us being at Victory Lane together as a family is just cool, because as a parent, you try and raise your kids. You want to be proud of your kids, you want them to grow up and be good kids and you want them to respect you. But you also want your kids to be proud of you. So, to have that opportunity to go and win and have Alex and Abby be there to witness it and be in Victory Lane and be happy and excited, and for them to be proud of the fact that their dad won the race, that was really cool.
Bearden: You’ve added your name twice to the victor’s list at Daytona, which is considered by many to be the pinnacle of NASCAR. Do you feel that adds to your legacy as a driver?
Almirola: You know, I don’t know. I don’t care much about what other people think of me as a racecar driver or anything like that, so I really don’t get caught up in what winning at Daytona means for anyone else to think of me.
For me, winning at Daytona is a special place, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s the ultimate motorsports racetrack in the world. Just the simple fact that I grew up two hours away in Tampa, Florida and grew up going to that racetrack in February and July, always sitting outside the racetrack dreaming about what it would be like to have that opportunity to go in the track and race there. Going for Daytona Kart Week in December every year for probably eight to nine years and racing at the memorial stadium there, again wondering how cool it would be to have that opportunity to go race a stock car at Daytona.
20 years later, to be a grown adult now and have that opportunity to not only have raced there, but won there twice in an XFINITY car and a Cup car, it’s really cool. It amazes me how God works, so to have that opportunity and to have a dream really come true is really special.
Bearden: Being so close to home and having that success, do you consider Daytona one of your favorite tracks?
Almirola: Yeah! Obviously, going to Daytona is a really good place for me. I’ve had a lot of good fortune there, and had some really good races.
I always enjoy going to Daytona. I enjoy the atmosphere, the facility. I enjoy the memories that it brings back from my childhood. There’s so many things about Daytona that make it a really special place for me to go to.
The ultimate is just the fact that it’s Daytona. I grew up going there to watch races, and that’s what ultimately got me thinking and dreaming about going stock car racing. I grew up watching my grandfather race, so I’ve always had a passion for racing, but to go there and watch it on a professional level and want to do that, it makes Daytona a really cool place for me.
Bearden: RPM’s had their troubles on the Cup side this year. Has being able to go down to the XFINITY Series and get some races under your belt been good for the team, and also for you?
Almirola: The XFINITY opportunities that I’ve had with Biagi-Denbeste Racing have been sponsor driven, but at the same time it’s been an opportunity for me to go and have fun.
The Cup side is very stressful. Every lap of practice matters. Every race matters. Everything matters.
You’ve got to run good for your sponsors. You’ve got to run good for your team. There’s just a lot of pressure, and in a year like we’re having this year when things aren’t going right, and you’re not getting the finishes you want, and the cars aren’t running the way we want them to, it really is somewhat therapeutic to go and run the XFINITY car.
It kind of gets you back to why you actually race in the first place. On the Cup level, in seasons like we’re having now, it becomes work. I get to drive a race car for a living, and I realize that I’m blessed and fortunate to do that, but when things aren’t going right it certainly becomes work, becomes a job. So to have that luxury to go and run and XFINITY car and do it with no pressure, no points on the line, purely to go have fun, it’s a great opportunity for me.
It really is therapeutic, and gives me an opportunity to go race and do what I love to do without the extra pressure and stress.
Bearden: When you’re having a down year like 2016, what sort of goals do you set for yourself for the rest of the season? How do you notice improvement?
Almirola: For us, I think we’ve really got to set attainable goals so we can try to meet some goals before the end of the year.
For us it’s really just getting back to being competitive. Where we’re at in points, the Chase is going to be really, really challenging. It would take practically a miracle to make that happen. We’ve just go to get back to where we can run competitive, run in the top 15 and do the things we’d been doing really well for the past couple years.
For whatever reason we haven’t been able to do that this year, so we’ve got to get back to that.
Bearden: You’ve had three separate teammates in the past three years between Marcos Ambrose, Sam Hornish, Jr. and Brian Scott. What has that dynamic been like for you?
Almirola: It’s been good. I’m a people person anyways, so it’s been good to have somebody fresh come in that last couple of years, and try to bring some new energy from the race track.
But at the same time, it’s been equally challenging. As nice and fun as it is to have somebody new come in and be excited, pumped up and ready to go. There’s also challenges that it brings. Having to learn a new teammate again, having to learn their driving styles.
When they say their car’s driving good, handling good, what does that mean? How can I apply that to my race car?
From that standpoint, it has been challenging. To try and go over the last three years having three different teammates, it makes it much more difficult for me and for the No. 43 team to be able to always look at our teammate’s car setups. We’ve constantly had different crew chiefs and different drivers in that car over the last three years. It’s hard to adapt and understand when they say they’re happy with their car, what it means and how to apply it to our race car.
Bearden: What are your thoughts on this low downforce package you’ve been running at Kentucky and Michigan?
Almirola: So far, I think it’s been an improvement from what we’ve had. I think there’s still room for more improvement and NASCAR knows that. They’re continuing to look at ways to make the racing better.
Ultimately that’s what the drivers want, what NASCAR wants and what the fans want. We all want to be able to race around each other, pass cars. You want to be able to see a car that’s fast be able to drive through the field and not get aero-tight or aero-loose and be drastically affected by track position.
I think NASCAR’s continuing to work hard on that, and I think this is another step in the right direction, and they’ll continue to work on it and make it better.