Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Aric Almirola avoided two huge wrecks and benefited from the rain to win Sunday's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Thirty years after his team owner, Richard Petty, scored his historic 200th career NASCAR win, which came in the 400-mile race at Daytona, Almirola drove the legendary No. 43 car into victory lane here after the event was cut short 48 laps (120 miles) from its scheduled distance due to inclement weather.
"This is so awesome," said Almirola, who scored his first career Sprint Cup Series win in his 125th start. "Thirty years to the weekend that Richard Petty got his 200th win is really, really special. The good Lord was looking out for us today. We had a really fast car, nonetheless, but I'll take them anyway we can get 'em."
Almirola grabbed the lead from Kurt Busch following a restart on lap 106, occurring just after a 26-car crash took place on the backstretch. The first "big one" in this race happened on lap 20, involving 16 drivers on the frontstretch.
With Almirola leading the way, rain began falling in portions of this 2.5-mile superspeedway on lap 109. The rain had intensified after the completion of lap 112 while under caution, forcing NASCAR officials to halt the race.
While track-drying efforts were underway, another shower moved over the area and completely soaked the track. Officials then called the race, awarding the victory to Almirola.
Several drivers, including second-place finisher Brian Vickers, were disappointed that NASCAR officials had called it just before 3 p.m. ET.
"It's unfortunate," Vickers said. "I was hoping they would wait it out. We've got lights. It's Daytona. I guess they felt they needed to call it, so it is what it is."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, later explained why the decision was made to end the race and not make an attempt to resume it under the lights later in the evening.
"We had several red flags and battled with the weather throughout the day, and that last bit when we really lost the entire racetrack and it washed out, we looked at the forecasts and there was the potential for a few more hours of rain," Pemberton said. "We were past halfway and decided to call the race.
"We've seen this weather pattern before, and we felt it was in the best interest of teams getting done and fans going home. We put on two and a half hours of solid racing. When you looked at what was in front of us weather- wise, we felt it was best for all concerned that the race was concluded."
This race was scheduled for Saturday night but postponed until the following day due to precipitation. The green flag waved at 11:20 a.m. ET. Five laps were run before light rain fell on the track, prompting the first red flag of the day. It was stopped for 25 minutes before it resumed.
Currently 21st in the point standings, Almirola has virtually guaranteed himself a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. It would be his first appearance in the playoffs. The 30-year old driver from nearby Tampa, Florida is in his third full season with Richard Petty Motorsports in Sprint Cup competition.
"Yes, we're going to be in the Chase. This team deserves to be in the Chase," he said. "We have had good cars, top-10 cars. We've been right where we need to be to be competitive-wise but just haven't gotten to that next level. This is so cool to get this team to victory lane with the 43 car. This is so special."
It was the first time the No. 43 car won a race in NASCAR's premier series since John Andretti drove it to victory at Martinsville Speedway on April 18, 1999. The 43 car now has 199 wins to its credit, which is second most in the sport. Petty won 192 of his 200 races in that car number.
Petty had departed the track earlier in the day and missed out on the victory lane celebration. He was on a conference call during Almirola's race-winning media obligation.
"I just feel so good for the crew," Petty said. They've been working really hard. They've done this deal. We've had so many disappointments, and finally it rained on us, but it rained on us at the right time. Overall, it was just a great day for us."
Busch ended up finishing third, followed by Casey Mears and Austin Dillon. Denny Hamlin, Michael McDowell, Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose, who is Almirola's teammate, completed the top-10. Patrick's eighth- place run marked her second top-10 finish this season and the third of her Sprint Cup career.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 14th after winning the Daytona 500 in February.
Tony Stewart, a four-time winner of the July race at Daytona, and Jimmie Johnson, who won the Daytona 500 and the 400-miler here last year, were among those involved in the first major crash.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got loose when he was exiting turn 4 while running in a tight pack of cars. At the same time, Jeff Gordon tagged Stewart from behind. Stewart then bumped into Stenhouse and turned him around, triggering the pileup.
Stewart thought at first that Stenhouse had caused the accident.
"I guess it was just Stenhouse being an idiot," Stewart said. "It didn't make much sense when we're coming to the [competition] caution. We were like a quarter of a lap from getting to the caution, and he does something stupid. It tore up a lot of people's cars and a lot of people's days."
But Stenhouse had a different version of what happened.
"I had a good run going towards the lead, but the 34 [David Ragan] pulled in front of me and slowed me up just a bit, and I got a little loose coming out of the corner," Stenhouse said. "I got it saved and was going straight, and then it looked like the 24 [Gordon] kind of checked up and moved down. He then got into the outside of the 14 [Stewart] and turned him around."
Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne caused the 26-car pileup on the backstretch on lap 98. Biffle got into the back of Kahne and spun him into the direction of Joey Logano.
"I was running in sixth or so and getting hit from behind and just started spinning," Kahne said. "It's kind of a tough spot to be in there, because everybody is trying to go and I just got hit. I started going left to right and spun around. I knew it was going to be big as far up as I was."
During that incident, Cole Whitt plowed into Kyle Busch, causing Busch's car to roll upside down before it came to a rest on the track.
"Just felt like a slow carnival ride," Busch said. "I guess that's fitting for the Fourth of July weekend but not here in Daytona...I just got T-boned there at the end, and it just kind of toppled me over."
Just six drivers, including Almirola, avoided being involved in any one of the two big wrecks at Daytona.