By Mark Long
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.: It had been more than 15 years since the iconic No. 43 drove to Victory Lane.
So waiting through two days of thunderstorms and three red flags was relatively easy for Aric Almirola and his Richard Petty Motorsports team.
Almirola won the rain-delayed and rain-shortened NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, putting Petty’s famed blue car back on top for the first time since 1999.
Almirola’s first Cup win came on the same weekend Petty celebrated the 30th anniversary of his 200th career win. The 30-year-old Almirola was just a baby when Petty picked up that milestone victory.
“The 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport’s history,” Almirola said. “And to have that opportunity to drive that race car has been really special from the day that I stepped foot in it. All I wanted to do from the very first time I drove it was get it to Victory Lane. It took two and a half years I guess, but I finally did it.”
Petty wasn’t around for the festivities, having already left Daytona during one of the many delays. He didn’t miss much considering steady rain put a slight damper on the post-race party.
NASCAR, though, patched through the seven-time NASCAR champion nicknamed “The King” on a conference call afterward and talked about how he never lost faith despite years of struggles as a team owner.
“If you look back at the history of Petty Enterprises and all the turmoil we’ve been through, I never gave up on the thing,” Petty said. “It was one of those deals I said, ‘OK, if I keep working at it long enough, we’re going to be able to overcome all of this.’ Just because we won a race doesn’t mean we’ve overcome it, don’t get me wrong. But it puts in a higher speed track. You know you can do it.
“Everybody’s got to have a start, and I think this will be starting it pretty good.”
The Coke Zero 400 was originally scheduled to go off Saturday night, but steady rain forced it to be postponed a day. When it did finally get started Sunday, it was interrupted several more times.
There were three red flags, two of them because of huge accidents that took out most of the 43-car field and several top contenders. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch were among those knocked out of contention.
Biffle and Kahne started the second massive wreck, a 25-car fiasco that ended with Busch getting flipped upside-down in his No. 18 Toyota.
“It just felt like a slow carnival ride,” Busch said.
The same could be said for the entire weekend at Daytona. Sprint Cup qualifying was a debacle, and then rain affected the entire four-day event at NASCAR’s most famous track.
Sunday’s race topped it all, with just seven cars avoiding both crashes.
Not surprisingly, Almirola was among them.
He became the first Cup driver other than Petty to win in the legendary No. 43 at Daytona. The previous time the 43 won was with John Andretti behind the wheel at Martinsville in 1999. So Petty’s renowned car went 543 races without a victory.
Almirola got out of his car and watched the radar with crewmembers during the final red flag, a 56-minute wait that had most drivers believing the race would resume. But when heavy rain soaked parts of the track, officials called it for good with 48 laps remaining.
“I was doing a lot of hardcore praying, hoping the good Lord would open the skies up and let it rain,” Almirola said. “If we would have went back racing, I still think we had enough car to go there.
“I don’t think this was handed to us by any means. Let me be very clear about that. … Those last two restarts, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon and Brian Vickers, they didn’t just let me go. They saw the rain coming, too, and we were all racing for it.”
Vickers finished second, followed by Kurt Busch, Casey Mears and rookie Austin Dillon. Danica Patrick was eighth despite a late pit-road mistake, and reigning Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 14th.
Almirola became the 11th driver to win this season as they jockey for one of the 16 spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
In his third full season driving for Petty, Almirola went into Daytona with just four career top-five finishes and had never finished higher than 18th in the standings.
But he and teammate Marcos Ambrose have slowly been inching RPM back toward the front, and Almirola had his previous career-best finish of third earlier this season at Bristol.
Many other drivers left Daytona scratching their heads over the decision to not wait out the rain like they had so many other times this weekend.
“It seems early to call a race,” Kurt Busch said. “Maybe we could have run later on today and still finished and everybody could have gone back home and to work on Monday.”