It was throwback Sunday at Daytona International Speedway with an old-school starting time, and an old-school win.
The green flag waved in the morning. Mid-afternoon, Richard Petty Motorsports’ famed No. 43 was back in Daytona’s Gatorade Victory Lane thanks to Aric Almirola’s rain-shortened win in the 56th Annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola. Thirty years ago – July 4, 1984 to be exact – Petty won this race, the last of his 200 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories.
“Thirty years ago, that’s history; today is the future,” Petty said.
For Almirola, it was his first Sprint Cup victory, coming at what he considers his “home” track. He is a Tampa, Fla., native and attended Daytona races regularly as a youth, dreaming of driving on the famed track. The win almost assures Almirola of a berth in NASCAR’s season-ending “playoffs,” the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“Obviously, this is really special,” Almirola said. “I grew up just two hours away. I sat in these grandstands watching the DAYTONA 500, watching the 400. And all the history behind the 43 car, I’m really appreciative of that.”
Rain was a recurring theme this weekend. On Saturday night it caused the race to be postponed until Sunday at 11 a.m., which actually used to be the Coke Zero 400’s starting time until 1998, when the speedway installed lights around the 2.5-mile tri-oval. (This year marked only the second postponement in the race’s 56-year history. The other postponement occurred in ‘98; what would’ve been the inaugural race under the lights was postponed until October, due to wildfires which plagued the area that summer.)
The rains came again Sunday, bringing out the first caution period on Lap 7 and leading to a red flag that lasted 25 minutes and 43 seconds. Rain also brought out the red with 112 laps (of the scheduled 160 laps) in the books. After nearly an hour and an increasingly heavy downpour, NASCAR declared the race official, giving Almirola and Petty Motorsports the historic victory that was accented by a most-appropriate sponsorship for the No. 43 Ford on the holiday weekend, from the United States Air Force.
Brian Vickers (No. 55 Aaron’s/FSU National Championship Toyota) finished second, while Kurt Busch (No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet) rounded out the top three; Busch led the most laps on the day, 36.
Fourteen cars were finished long before the race was, because of two multi-car incidents. The first, which brought out a Lap 21 caution, involved 16 cars on the frontstretch and was high-profile to say the least; the list of drivers involved included five former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions – Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
That seemed almost minimal compared to what transpired on Lap 98, when 26 cars tangled in the backstretch, bringing out another red flag that lasted almost five minutes.
Almirola avoided both melees, two strokes of luck that preceded a third. And while he admittedly welcomed the rainout, he didn’t consider it an absolute necessity to win Sunday. His Ford, after all, led the second-most laps on the day, 14, including the last seven.
Said Almirola: “We don’t feel like this race was handed to us.”