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Tampa’s Aric Almirola on new NASCAR ride: ‘Let’s go have fun’

DAYTONA BEACH — Tampa's Aric Almirola spent the first six full seasons of his NASCAR Cup Series career wondering what he could do on a good, if not great, team.

He could compete for a rare win — like his 2014 Coke Zero 400 victory at Daytona International Speedway — but his Richard Petty Motorsports team didn't have the resources or infrastructure to contend for championships.

After joining Stewart Haas Racing in the offseason, the 33-year-old Hillsborough High alumnus doesn't have to wonder about life on an A-team anymore. He's on a team that regularly challenges for victories and titles, making him a breakout candidate when the season begins with Sunday's Daytona 500.

"Now I've got that opportunity," Almirola said Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway. "Here I am sitting in a premier ride. I've got that opportunity. Now it's like, hell, let's just go."

It wasn't that simple with his last ride.

Almirola drove for NASCAR royalty (the legendary Richard Petty), but his No. 43 car didn't have the resources to live up to its championship past, even dropping to a one-car team last season. The internal pressure Almirola felt as a professional athlete meant trying to maximize a top-20 run; that was often all his car could produce.

Jumping to Stewart Haas Racing, then, was like jumping from the low-budget Rays to the high-rolling Cubs.

"Now Aric has everything in front of him at his disposal," teammate Kurt Busch said.

Almirola has noticed the differences everywhere, from the quality of engineers to the size of the buildings to the machines that make every inch of his No. 10 Ford.

The commitment shows in his team's results. Since 2009, RPM has only five Cup wins and one top-10 finish in points. Stewart Haas? It has 39 Cup victories and two series titles in that span, plus Busch's win in last year's Daytona 500.

Almirola has gone from being the team's only driver to the least accomplished of four; two of his teammates (Busch and Kevin Harvick) are former series champions, and the other (Clint Bowyer) finished second in 2012.

But Almirola still has a better resume than the driver he's replacing, Danica Patrick. His six top-10 finishes in an injury-shortened 2017 season are almost as many as Patrick had in five full-time Cup seasons (seven). That's why teammates are expecting Almirola to contribute immediately.

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"The biggest thing that Aric has brought is the fact that we're going to have a car that's running well, and hopefully we can use those notes," Harvick said.

Although Almirola has dreamed for years about an opportunity like this, he still doesn't know what he'll be able to do with it. Is he a top-tier driver whose equipment had been holding him back? Or are his pedestrian results (21.4 career average finish) indicative of his talent?

"One of two things is going to happen," Almirola said. "I'm either going to go out and be successful, or I'm not."

Almirola has had too much of the latter, but just enough of the former to think the wins can start flowing, starting immediately.

"I feel like over the last six years, we have not had the equipment that I've been exposed to and seen with my own eyes the last couple months," Almirola said. "So to look at that and to say, 'Wow, I actually, on rare occasion, competed against these cars.' That gives me a lot of confidence to think, now that I have the equipment and now that I'm driving these race cars that are so fast, what can't I accomplish?"

Almirola, finally, is about to find out.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes

Daytona 500

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