Aric Almirola celebrated a victory with his family one weekend, then found himself on a backboard in a helicopter on the way to the hospital just seven days later.
Almirola fractured a vertebra in a crash Saturday night at Kansas Speedway and could miss up to three months of the NASCAR season. The 33-year-old Almirola will heed doctor warnings and not rush back to racing because he has been warned further injury could lead to paralysis.
"Everybody is telling me that with this type of fracture it is eight to 12 weeks, so I'm not happy about that," Almirola said. "Getting back in a race car two weeks too soon is just going to add two more starts to my start column and the stat book. But if I were to get in another similar accident and not be properly healed, you're talking about potentially being paralyzed from the belly button down.
"I'm not going to risk that," he said. "I've got a lot of baseball to play with my son and I'd like to dance with my daughter one day at her wedding. Whenever the doctors clear me, I'll be ready to get back in a race car."
It was a wild turn of events for Almirola, who reveled in celebrating an Xfinity Series win at Talladega with his family on May 6. A week later, he was hospitalized overnight in Kansas before flying home to North Carolina to receive another diagnosis.
Almirola said Friday he'd stopped taking painkillers 48 hours prior to his news conference in order to sound coherent while discussing his injury. It has been a rollercoaster of a week, with the Talladega victory underscoring the promise his Richard Petty Motorsports team has shown this season.
"We've seen momentum and everything was looking so good and everybody at the team is happy, the morale in the shop is good, everybody just keeps digging harder and working harder because when you see those results it just drives more ambition," he said. "So to go through Talladega and have such a great weekend there, to win on Saturday and have Janice and the kids in victory lane with me, and then to have a great run on Sunday, and then literally seven days later to be on a helicopter heading for the hospital — there's nothing that describes it better other than that's our sport.
"One day you're a hero, one day you're a zero, although I don't classify myself as a zero just because I broke my back. But I think it does, it messes with your emotions."
Almirola suffered a compression fracture of his T5 vertebra, just above the middle of his back. Denny Hamlin missed four races — and started but didn't complete a fifth — after suffering a compression fracture of the L1 vertebra in his lower back in 2013.
Tony Stewart last year missed the first eight races of the season with a fracture of his L1 vertebra, though the injury happened about three weeks before the season opened.
"This fracture is at a higher level than the injuries that Denny sustained or that Tony sustained," said Dr. William Heisel of OrthoCarolina Motorsports. "The bone is, for lack of a better term, crunched and it's something that first and foremost we've got to get some of the edema or some of the blood out of the bone and that is something that is a time phenomenon as much as anything."
Then comes physical therapy.
Regan Smith is substituting this weekend for Almirola in the No. 43 Ford at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the qualifying event for the All-Star race. Brian Moffitt, CEO of Richard Petty Motorsports, said the team is still working through the driver replacement process.
"As soon as we know for the future, we'll be letting you guys know that," Moffitt said. "But right now we're thrilled that Regan's going to be in the car for this weekend."
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