After the weather had put its final soggy stamp on the weekend at Daytona International Speedway, Aric Almirola drove one of NASCAR’s iconic cars to victory in the Coke Zero 400.
Almirola, driver of Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Ford, was declared the winner Sunday after rain stopped the crash-marred race after 112 of a scheduled 160 laps. It brought a halt to a race that had already been postponed from Saturday night, also due to rain.
And while the victory – the first of his career – earns Almirola a spot in the Chase for the Cup playoffs, his car also earned plenty of post-race attention.
It was the 30th anniversary of Richard Petty’s victory in the 1984 summer race at Daytona in his familiar red-and-blue No. 43 Pontiac, the 200th and final triumph of his driving career that was also witnessed by President Ronald Reagan.
“Thirty years ago was yesterday; today is the future,” said Petty, who watched the race on television from his home in Level Cross. “To be able to win the race (in Daytona) is great. It rained on us, but it rained on us at the right time.”
The rain, which played havoc with events all weekend at the track, wasn’t the only story. The race was interrupted by two major accidents – the first involving 16 cars on Lap 21, the second involving 26 cars on Lap 99.
Pole-winner David Gilliland, a victim of the second big wreck, finished 35th. Points-leader Jeff Gordon, who would have clinched a spot in the Chase with a victory, was 12th.
Petty’s final victory in Daytona’s summer race came just months after Almirola, 30, was born in Walton Beach, Fla. Almirola and his family often came to Daytona to watch races when he was a child.
“I know all about the history of the car,” said Almirola, who is in his second season of driving for RPM. “I’m appreciative of it, that it’s 30 years to the weekend since (Petty) won his 200th race with the president here. But I’m also a little bit selfish. I just won my first Cup race!”
Almirola did it by avoiding the two big wrecks, and then passing Kurt Busch on Lap 106 to take the lead as the rain bore down on the track. Busch had led three times for 36 laps – more than anybody – to that point. Brian Vickers, who finished second, and Casey Mears (fourth) were also in contention when the rain hit.
“They all saw the rain coming, too, and we all raced for it,” Almirola said.
Rain brought out the red flag on Lap 112, and after nearly an hour, Almirola was declared the winner because the race had already been deemed official by passing its halfway point of 80 laps.
“I was doing a lot of hard-core praying, hoping the skies would open up and rain,” Almirola said. “I don’t think it was handed to us by any means. I feel like we had a good enough car to go back out there and win if we needed to.”
Almirola stayed away from each of the race’s big wrecks. The first one happened when Gordon forced Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to get loose coming out of Turn 1, causing a huge pileup on the front stretch. The main victim of the wreck was six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, whose day was finished because the damage to his Chevy was too severe to repair.
The second accident was highlighted by Kyle Busch’s Toyota being flipped on its top by Cole Whitt. Busch was OK and joked on the radio to his team that he was “just hanging around” while waiting for track workers to extricate him.
It was the first victory since 1999 for Petty’s No. 43, (John Andretti, Martinsville Speedway). Since then, the Petty team has struggled, overcoming a merger that didn’t work and near bankruptcy.
“I don’t ever give up on anything,” Petty said. “If you look back on all the turmoil we’ve been through, you see we don’t give up on anything. If you keep working at something long enough, you can overcome it. Winning one race doesn’t overcome it, but it puts you on a higher track. Everybody needs a (fresh) start, and this is it.”