DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Aric Almirola grew up two hours from Daytona International Speedway, attended countless races as a kid and even “dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level at this racetrack.”
He found out Sunday, after two days of thunderstorms, three red-flag stoppages and dozens of wrecked cars.
As a bonus, he also accomplished the feat on a milestone anniversary for his car owner, NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
Almirola won the delayed and rain-shortened Sprint Cup race at Daytona, putting Petty’s famed blue No. 43 back on top for the first time since 1999.
The 30-year-old Almirola’s first Cup win came on the same weekend Petty celebrated the 30th anniversary of his 200th career 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 2 1/2 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.
The Coke Zero 400 was supposed to start Saturday, but steady rain forced it to be postponed a day. When it did finally get going, it was interrupted several more times.
There were seven cautions and three red flags, two of them because of huge accidents that took out most of the 43-car field. Top contenders Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch were among those knocked out.
Only seven drivers avoided 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.
“Everybody always asks me, `How, how much pressure is it to drive The King’s car?'” Almirola said. “To be honest with you, there’s nobody that can put any more pressure on me than me because I want to win for myself. I know this sounds terrible, but it’s more about winning so that I can feel a sense of accomplishment more than just winning to give Richard Petty another win. He’s won enough races.”
Here are five other things to know about the Daytona race:
NO SWEEP: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had hoped to become the sixth driver to sweep the season at Daytona.
His chances were shot just 20 laps into the race when he was collected in a 16-car accident that caused serious damage to his No. 88 Chevrolet. He fell a lap down during repairs, eventually got back on the lead lap and finished 14th.
The Daytona 500 winner was particularly annoyed because he’d actually avoided the accident, but got hit from behind.
“We were going to be fine on that first wreck, but we got run over,” he said. “I can’t believe all of the cars we have wrecked today.”
WILD RIDE: Kyle Busch went for the wildest of rides in a 25-car crash that will be remembered for his car flipping onto its roof. But that wreck was just as unsettling for Jamie McMurray, whose car briefly went airborne.
“I have never had a car that’s off the ground, and it’s a crazy feeling, and it’s a helpless feeling,” McMurray said. “I was really lucky that it set back down.”
As spectacular as the big accidents look, McMurray said they are usually the easiest for drivers.
“You see these big wrecks and those are probably the easiest hits you take all year long because everyone is going the same speed, and for the most part, those don’t hurt near as bad as if you have a tire issue or something,” he said.
CHASING THE CHASE: Slots are filling fast in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, with Almirola’s victory likely securing him the latest berth.
There are only eight races remaining and, with 11 winners to date, there could effectively only be five remaining spots to fill. NASCAR overhauled the format this year to create a win-and-in system, and several stars have yet to grab the needed victory.
Among the winless with two months to go are Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer. It could lead to one of the most competitive on-track summers in some time.
“Obviously the fewer spots there are, the intensity picks up,” said second-place finisher Brian Vickers. “You go to every race trying to win and knowing what’s at stake if you do, and what’s at stake if you don’t.”
DODGED THE BIG ONE: A mistake on pit road likely saved Danica Patrick’s race at Daytona.
Patrick was running eighth when she headed to pit road for a routine stop, but she missed her stall. She had to back up, losing valuable time and dropping to 30th when she got back on track.
It turned out to be a blessing when it put Patrick far behind the pack and in position to avoid being collected in a 25-car pileup. She ultimately finished eighth.
Still, she wanted a shot to race for the win.
“On a normal speedway weekend, you would say eighth is pretty good, let’s just go home with a car that is not too badly banged up,” she said while she waited out the final rain delay. “But there is a lot less to lose than normal, so it would be fun to go back at it.”
FORD FACTS: Aric Almirola’s victory at Daytona was the third consecutive win for a Ford driver. The streak started last month when Carl Edwards won at Sonoma and continued last week with Brad Keselowski’s victory at Kentucky.
The last time Ford won three straight Cup races was in 2005, when Greg Biffle won Dover, Edwards won at Pocono and then Biffle won again at Michigan.
The win is the seventh of the season for Ford Racing, equaling the most wins for Ford since 2011.
It was the third win for Richard Petty Motorsports as a Ford-backed team.