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Almirola outlasts rain for win

7/7/2014

By Don Coble

McClatchy-Tribune

DAYTONA BEACH -- Aric Almirola had waited his entire life to celebrate a victory at the Daytona International Speedway, so when he was declared the winner after rain washed out the final 48 laps of Sunday's Coke Zero 400, he wasn't about to move Victory Lane under cover.

The driver from Tampa didn't mind getting wet in Victory Lane. Normal protocol is to move postrace ceremonies into the garage area. But Almirola, who was the biggest benefactor of two days of pesky rain, didn't mind sharing center stage with another Florida afternoon shower.

"I couldn't have dreamed of a better place to get my first win," Almirola said. "Of all the places I could pick to win it was Daytona. I've sat in the stands and watched the Daytona 500, watched the 400.

"Not only have I done that, I've been to been Victory Lane."

The victory not only put Almirola in position to qualify for the Chase for the Championship, it marked the return of Richard Petty's iconic No. 43 to Victory Lane -- and on the weekend of the 30th anniversary of Petty's 200th , and final, win.

Almirola was four months old that day.

He was 10 when he watched his first race -- the 1994 Daytona 500 victory by Sterling Marlin -- from the fourth turn grandstands.

The only thing that dampened the party was that Petty, who had grown weary of so many rain delays over two days, had already left the racetrack.

But he called his team during their postrace interview.

"Thirty years ago is history," Petty said. "Today is the day. Today is the future. I just feel so good for the crew. Finally it rained on us, but it rained on us at the right time."

The last time the No. 43 won a race was in 1999 at the Martinsville Speedway with John Andretti at the wheel.

Luck and timing was critical in Almirola's victory. He was one of seven drivers who weren't involved in one of two big crashes. He also was out front when another storm sent the cars to pit road.

An hour later, NASCAR declared him the winner.

Brian Vickers wound up second, followed by Kurt Busch in third, Casey Mears in fourth and Austin Dillon in fifth. Those four also missed both crashes.

"The rain just came at the wrong time for us and the right time for them," Vickers said.

"I don't think this was handed to us by any means," Almirola said. "If we had gone back racing, we had a good enough car. They didn't just let me go. They saw the rain coming, too. We were able to stay up front.

"I saw the rain coming. It was time to go."

Steady rain and severe thunderstorms forced NASCAR to postpone the race from a Saturday night start to Sunday morning. The field was 200 yards short of taking the green flag Sunday when a shower moved across the second turn.

The field stayed in tow behind the pace car for three more laps and finally started the race. But six laps later, a new shower hit Turns 1 and 2 that chased everyone to pit road for a 26-minute red flag.

A massive 16-car pileup slowed the pace again as the field was racing to a mandatory caution on Lap 20 so teams could check tire wear and make adjustments.

Cars for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jeff Gordon bobbled coming off the fourth turn. Gordon bounced into Tony Stewart, turning Stewart into Stenhouse. That set off a chain reaction that also involved 13 other cars.

"We had the outside lane working there and it seemed like some of the guys were struggling on the bottom and the middle and we got a little loose on the top," Stenhouse said. "I saved it and everything was good and then all of a sudden we got hit in the left rear."

Teams were desperate to make it to halfway -- which would make the race official if there was more rain. The leaders started making green-flag stops just after the midpoint of the race. Most of those stops came with light rain returning to the speedway.

Another big crash with 42 laps to go involved 25 cars. It started with Greg Biffle bumping Kasey Kahne on the backstretch. That bump turned Kahne sideways in front of on-coming traffic.

Almirola was in front of the melee, and he stayed out front when the rain returned 14 laps after the second crash. He led 14 of the final 15 laps, falling back to second briefly behind Kurt Busch for one laps in the stretch drive.

And when it didn't go away, NASCAR finally pulled the plug 48 laps short of the scheduled finish.