Merely avoiding the wreckage of two massive pileups suggested that perhaps the hand of Providence was in the passenger seat Sunday for Aric Almirola’s first career NASCAR Sprint Cup triumph.
And then the skies above the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway opened, cutting short the race after 112 of the 160 planned laps and clinching victory and a likely berth in the circuit’s postseason Chase.
Almirola, the 43rd driver of the famed No. 43, drove into Victory Lane on the 30th anniversary of the “King” Richard Petty’s last victory in the car, which was sponsored by the U.S. Air Force on Independence Day weekend.
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“Yeah, I was doing a lot of hard-core praying, hoping that the good Lord would just open the skies up and let it rain,” Almirola said. “I still think that we had a good enough car to have a shot to go up there” had it stopped raining.
“I don’t think this was handed to us by any means, so let me be very clear on that. Those last two restarts … those guys, they didn’t just let me go. They saw the rain coming, too, and we were all racing for it, and we just had a really fast car.”
Almirola had to navigate his Ford Fusion around Kurt Busch and hold off a hard-charging Brian Vickers to be in the best position when officials called off the race.
Even more special for Almirola was the location. Born on a U.S. Air Force base in Panama, Almirola moved as a youngster and grew up near Daytona, where he was a regular in the grandstands for the annual Daytona 500.
“Me and my family have loaded up every Christmas night after we’d eat Christmas dinner and we’d drive over here and get ready for Kart Week from the time I was 8 years old,” Almirola said. “I’d race right outside this racetrack … and just dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level at this racetrack.”
Almirola became Sprint Cup’s 11th winner and moved up in priority in the Chase. Winners are all but guaranteed a place in the postseason.
The significance of Almirola’s triumph extends beyond his personal ambitions, of course.
The victory broke the decades-long drought of the No. 43, the car of NASCAR’s most notable figure, Richard Petty. The No. 43 hadn’t won since John Andretti won in Martinsville in 1999.
Petty’s last victory — his 200th — was July 4, 1984, in front of President Ronald Reagan, who was in the midst of a re-election campaign.
Only Dale Earnhardt Sr. has won as many series championships — seven — as Petty, who had almost 1,200 race starts in a 35-year career that began in 1959.
Petty, who recently turned 77, was at the racetrack Sunday, but left early.
“Well, 30 years ago is history and today is future,” Petty said. “Today is today.”
Said Almirola: “It’s really cool to know all that history and to realize that the 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport’s history. 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.”