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April 7, 2024

Almirola prevails, Smith’s Martinsville rally falls short in Dash 4 Cash pursuit

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Aric Almirola came back to Joe Gibbs Racing’s NASCAR Xfinity Series program to win.

Mission accomplished.

Almirola, the longtime Cup Series veteran, held on in overtime to not only score the win in Saturday night’s Dude Wipes 250 but also take home the $100,000 bonus for winning the first Dash 4 Cash race of the 2024 campaign.

RELATED: Race results | At-track photos

“This is incredibly gratifying,” said Almirola, who led 148 of 251 laps. “This is exactly what I signed up for when Coach (Joe Gibbs) called me. Coach called me at the end of last year and asked me to come back and to be a part of the organization and to help in any way I could outside of the race car, and then to drive really as much as I wanted. And we looked at the schedule, and the very first conversation we ever had was to come and run full time and I can’t really tell Janice that I’m retiring from full-time racing to go full-time racing, even though it is the Xfinity Series.

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“So we talked a lot about it and settled on the schedule that we have now, and it is the perfect balance of being able to be home some weekends and then go race and enjoy racing race cars, which is what I love to do. I mean, I absolutely love to drive race cars, and it’s way more fun when you drive competitive race cars. And so to run any activity series with Joe Gibbs Racing is incredible.”

To come away with the added plus of $100,000, Almirola had to fend off fierce charges from JR Motorsports’ Sam Mayer as well as Almirola’s own JGR teammates Chandler Smith and Sheldon Creed. Smith, whose team brought the No. 81 Toyota back to the shop in Huntersville, North Carolina, for overnight repairs after a Friday practice incident, started from the rear and charged to the front by the final stage. Smith was also vying for possession of that Dash 4 Cash check.

A restart with 46 laps to go pinned the Nos. 20 and 81 Toyotas on the front row side-by-side for the race lead, their battle persisting for several laps. Eventually, Almirola got clear and began to run away. But late cautions provided Smith more opportunities — chances he took to use the bumper a bit more, particularly on a restart with 10 laps remaining.

“The restart before, we ran side-by-side and I thought it was very fair, very clean,” Almirola said. “We were racing really hard but very, very clean. I was giving them plenty of room. And then the next restart, I was still (the) leader and I chose the top because I realized how hard it was for me to clear him on the bottom. And he got the bottom, and he used me up, man. He ran me way wide and I was pretty upset that he used as much race track as he did and kind of ran me up into the marbles.

“So as soon as I got clear and got down behind him, I made sure that he knew that I didn’t appreciate that.”

Aric Almirola and his son Alex celebrate a NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Martinsville Speedway.
James Thomas |

Almirola wasn’t the only teammate Smith made contact with Saturday night. Creed, driving the No. 18 Toyota for JGR, collided with Smith numerous times throughout the 251-lapper. To Smith, it was all a product of short-track racing.

“I mean, we’re at Martinsville. There’s gonna be contact like that,” Smith said. “So you can get pissed off, frustrated, whatever, but at the end of the day, we’re at Martinsville, and they call it the paperclip for a reason, and the fans watch this race for a reason too.”

Bent fenders and a third-place finish ultimately didn’t bring Smith’s emotions too far down. The team’s work overnight resulted in a car capable of charging to the front of the field and challenging for the victory.

“Just being methodical about working our way up through there,” Smith said of his night. “Really proud of everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing taking this car back last night, working through the night hours and getting up in the morning and thrashing on it more to get this No. 81 Wheelers GR Supra as fast as Xfinity internet today, and we did just that. So learned a lot. Good Lord definitely blesses us in weird ways sometimes. Today, we were able to start in the back and make our way forward and have a good solid race and get good notes for we come back in the fall time when it really matters.”

Heading into the final restart in overtime, Smith had an opportunity to line up in the second row on the outside lane but instead opted for the inside of Row 3 in fifth place.

“It’s just a green-white-checkered,” Smith said. “I was kind of in the catbird seat. Typically, honestly, the 20 got pretty lucky where he was at that he didn’t get used up more than he did, I felt like. The fifth-place car usually comes away with a victory sometimes. So I didn’t think being in fourth — I knew they were gonna get shucked up to the outside, and I was gonna be stuck behind them. So I was able to give one row up to gain, get back to (third), ended up getting three spots there.”

With Almirola watching next week’s race at Texas Motor Speedway from home, he will not be able to defend his Dash 4 Cash crown. Smith, on the other hand, will pursue the next $100,000 bonus on Saturday (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) against Sam Mayer, Justin Allgaier and Sheldon Creed.