By Dustin Albino

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There was only one mission for Aric Almirola on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway: Win.

Almirola is a crafty superspeedway competitor, twice visiting Victory Lane in the Cup Series on drafting tracks. He also won one of this year’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel races in February in commanding fashion. Entering the race 25th in the championship standings with no chance of pointing his way into the playoffs, the only way the No. 10 team could make a postseason run was by winning.

The quartet of Stewart-Haas Racing Fords unloaded fast off the hauler on Friday, with all four making the final round of qualifying. Almirola narrowly missed out on securing the pole to his SHR teammate Chase Briscoe. But he thought he had a car capable of contending.

After the first stage, Almirola dropped back to 11th. At the end of the second stage, he fell 12 more positions to 23rd. But he only needed to be around for the ending.

In fact, Almirola thought he was doing everything right.

“I thought I was going to win tonight,” Almirola stated. “All race long, I thought I was doing everything that I needed to do to win.”

The Stewart-Haas cars regained control of the race during the final stage when Chase Briscoe took the lead on a restart and Almirola was second. Ryan Preece was immediately behind the No. 10 car in third and Kevin Harvick was fifth.

Almirola thought he was positioned well for the finish.

“We did a great job managing the race and putting ourselves in position,” he said. “[The team] brought me an incredibly fast racecar.”

When the Fords elected to pit on Lap 147, Harvick left pit road leading the train. Almirola settled in a few positions back, though still in striking distance of the lead. With four laps remaining in the scheduled distance of the event, a caution flew for a heart-wrenching wreck involving Preece and Briscoe. Almirola was outside the top five.

For the restart, Almirola elected the outside lane of the third row, behind RFK Racing teammates Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski. When the green flag waved, the No. 10 car pushed the RFK drivers out ahead. On the final lap, he backed up to Joey Logano’s bumper, hoping to get one last gasp for the lead. It wasn’t enough, as he edged out Chase Elliott for third, best of the drivers that needed to win to make the playoffs.

“I finished third,” he said. … “I didn‘t get it done.”

Almirola jumped two positions in the championship standings to 23rd. Daytona was his first top-five finish since placing fifth at World Wide Technology Raceway in June of 2022, he believes the final 10 races set up well for the No. 10 team.

The goal is simple.

“Just go and try to win some races,” Almirola said. “There‘s some good tracks in there for us. We ran well at Bristol last year. We‘ve got Martinsville and Talladega. We‘ve got some good racetracks coming up for us, so we will see what happens.”

First up is Darlington Raceway for the Southern 500. In 16 career starts at “The Track Too Tough To Tame,” Almirola has just a pair of top 10 efforts. Two of his last three finishes at the 1.33-mile track, however, have been 11th.

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