There was nothing particularly unusual Thursday as Aric Almirola packed up to leave his North Carolina home and travel halfway across the country for the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
At least, nothing was different until he told his 5-year-old son, Alex, where he was going for Sunday's race.
"No, dad, you can't go to Kansas," a concerned Alex blurted. "You broke your back there."
Almirola, 33, left the spring race at Kansas via life-flight helicopter after suffering a compression fracture of the T5 vertebra in the middle of his back from a vicious three-car crash.
He's a veteran of more than 400 NASCAR races in the Monster Energy Cup Series, Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series, including 16 previous races at Kansas.
"Alex was upset and worried for me, but I drive a race car," said Almirola, who missed seven races before returning July 16 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "It's a risky job. I know that, and I assume that risk. Quite frankly, I don't care. I love to race and have a passion for going fast."
Almirola's wife, Janice, "seemed fine" as her husband left for Kansas. She was more nervous last week when he headed to Talladega Superspeedway, a track notorious for high speeds and massive (sometimes fatal) collisions.
Still, during practice Friday at Kansas -- the first time he'd returned to the site of "the most violent crash ... and certainly the hardest hit" of his racing career -- it was hard not to think about that night.
"The first lap of practice, going down the front straightaway at 210 mph when you turn off into turn one, that thought kind of crosses your mind," Almirola said. "I was like, 'Hey, the last time I went through this corner, I ended up leaving in a helicopter.' That definitely crosses your mind. But once you go through there that first time, you kind of get your mind back on driving the race car and making it go faster."
Almirola, who said he never considered retiring -- "Hell, no, if anything, it lit my fire even more" -- after the wreck, may be nonchalant about the accident, but it remains a starkly vivid memory.