Daytona Speedweeks was all about "Lucky Number 13" for the No. 43 Smithfield Ford team and Aric Almirola. After finishing 13th in the Sprint Unlimited and Budweiser Duel, Almirola drove the Smithfield Ford to a 13th-place finish in the 55th Annual Daytona 500, besting his career-high Daytona finish of 19th.
The No. 43 Smithfield Ford took the green flag of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opener on Sunday, Feb. 24 from the 26th position. Almirola quickly teamed up with the No. 17 Ford and raced three-wide by the fourth lap. The Tampa, Fla., native continued to race three-wide on the bottom line until Lap 19 when he told the crew that the car was running hot and he was going to get some air to cool off the Ford engine.
NASCAR Officials called a caution for debris on Lap 28 with the RPM No. 43 Ford in the 27th position. Almirola told crew chief Todd Parrott that the Smithfield Ford was a little tight going into the corner and loose coming off the corner. Parrott called for a two-tire stop during the first caution period, and the team restarted in the 22nd position on Lap 30. On Lap 33, the No. 5 spun at the front of the field and collected eight other cars. Almirola drove high and then wheeled to the bottom of the track as he squeezed between two spinning cars.
Parrott had the Smithfield crew change four tires and make a chassis adjustment as Almirola told his team that the car was tight on a two-tire stop. When the field went back to green flag racing on Lap 37, the No. 43 Smithfield Ford restarted 20th. Almirola worked the draft and drove into the 14th spot by Lap 43 before hooking up with teammate Marcos Ambrose. The pair drove nose-to-tail as the field ran single file with the No. 43 steady in the 14th position.
By Lap 71, Parrott called his driver down pit road for the team's first green-flag pit stop. The RPM team changed four tires, and Almirola returned to the track. Unfortunately, the No. 43 Ford was caught speeding on the exit of pit road, and Almirola gave up the 14th position to adhere to a drive-through penalty. Being near the front of the field, the No. 43 Smithfield Ford returned to the track on the lead lap in the 33rd position. Thankfully, on Lap 86, NASCAR Officials called another debris caution, and Almirola was able to catch up with the main pack.
Almirola stayed out when the pits were open to catch up with the field and pit for four tires the second time around. The No. 43 Smithfield Ford restarted in the 28th position and once again quickly worked his way through the draft into the top-15. Stuck in the middle line, the Smithfield Ford fell back to the 24th position by the halfway point, and Almirola drove into the 17th position before the field began green-flag pit stops on Lap 123. Parrott elected to pit for four tires and an air pressure adjustment on Lap 130, and Almirola returned to the track in the 17th position. On Lap 138, a nine-car incident in turn one brought out the caution flag.
The Smithfield Ford held the 16th position as Almirola told the crew that the Ford was really tight on new tires. Parrott elected to stay out since the team could finish the race with only one more pit stop for fuel. The No. 43 Ford restarted 12th on Lap 147 and once again found teammate Ambrose to draft to the 11th position five laps later. By Lap 170, Almirola wheeled to the 10th position. Spotter Tyler Green communicated to the driver that he should pit for fuel when the leaders do, so on Lap 173, Almirola drove the No. 43 Smithfield Ford down pit road for a fuel-only stop and a chassis adjustment.
The No. 43 Smithfield Ford returned to the track in the 14th position, and three laps later, the No. 31 car spun in the tri-oval and brought out the caution. The team stayed out during the caution and restarted in the 11th spot on Lap 182. Drafting with the No. 15, Almirola raced two-by-two in the top-15 and as high as eighth before getting pushed out of the draft and falling to the 22nd position on Lap 191. NASCAR Officials called the final caution for debris with seven laps remaining. With five to go, the No. 43 Ford restarted 22nd. Almirola moved into the 20th position before finding a drafting partner and working the draft into the 16th position with one lap to go. He then moved ahead three positions when the checkers dropped, and Almirola secured a top-15 finish for the No. 43 Smithfield Ford team.
"We'll take it," said Almirola. "I felt like we could have had a better finish and were right up there near the end. We just got shuffled out of the draft and didn't have enough time to get back up there. In the final laps, we were able to make up some ground. This gives us the 13th spot in points starting out the season. We look to continue to finish in the top-15 and better each week. It was hard to swallow that we didn't finish better because we could have, but we have solid footing for the start of the season and that's what is important."
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