There were two winners at Daytona International Speedway Sunday; Mother Nature and Aric Almirola. Almirola took the iconic No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Racing to victory lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400 not only delayed by rain but shortened by rain as well.
Almirola worked his way to the front of the field and took over the lead after a round of pit stops on lap 103. From there he led the way until lap 111 when the second rain delay of the race hit sending the field down pit road and bringing out the red flag. NASCAR waited for nearly an hour before declaring the race over and giving Almirola his first career win.
“I grew up two hours away from here in Tampa,” Almirola said. “I grew up in those stands watching Daytona 500s and Firecracker 400s and grew up dreaming about what it would be like to win here. I can’t believe I just took the 43 car to victory lane here at Daytona. This is amazing.”
It also marked the first win for the No. 43 since driver John Andretti took the Petty car to victory lane at Martinsville Speedway in 1999.
“This is so cool,” Almirola said. “To get this team and all these guys behind me that have been working on this race team for a long time and haven’t gotten to victory lane with the 43 car, this is so special.”
Thanks to two large accidents many of the race favorites were either in the garage or limping around the back of the field.
Behind Almirola Brian Vickers was second, Kurt Busch who led the most laps, was third, Casey Mears fourth and rookie Austin Dillon fifth.
After an all night rain delay and with even more showers threatening, surprise pole winner David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson led the field to the green just after 11 a.m. Sunday morning. Gilliland and Sorenson held station with Gilliland holding a slight edge until lap 4 when Matt Kenseth worked through traffic from his sixth place spot to the lead. He held that lead until lap 6 when the first caution came out for light rain in turn 2. The cars were brought down pit road and parked as rain covered turn 2.
After a 25:43 minute red flag the field was sent back out under sunny skies. Kenseth led followed by Gilliland on lap 12. Kenseth was quickly up the front; Jimmie Johnson was working his way forward and was in third in the outside lane a lap later. By lap 15 Tony Stewart has moved to the front and was inside Johnson for second. Coming to the line on lap 17, Stewart was able to move forward to the lead spot. Just behind him the rest of the field was three wide. A few laps later Stewart was just starting to get swallowed up by the field.
As the field came to the line for lap 19 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bobbled; Jeff Gordon reacted behind Stewart exiting turn 4. Stewart was turned down into the field and chaos ensued along the frontstretch. A total of 16 cars were involved including favorites in addition to Gordon and Stewart. Also getting damage was Johnson, Earnhardt, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and 11 others.
After an extensive clean up, the green flew on lap 28. David Regan led followed by Greg Biffle, Mears, and Kyle Busch. By lap 34, Landon Cassill moved up and took over the top spot. On lap 39 Jamie McMurray moved forward and took over the lead.
Caution three came out on lap 41 for debris. The leaders came in to pit with most taking only two tires and fuel. The top five of pit road, McMurray, Almirola, Cassill, Kurt Busch and Biffle took fuel only.
The green came out on lap 44, McMurray led with Almirola right on his bumper. Biffle fought his was forward and took over the lead on lap 52. After a long slow climb to the front, on lap 56 Kurt Busch was soon behind Biffle and challenging for the lead. By lap 61 Busch had the clear advantage for the lead as Biffle fell back at the head of the inside line.
The field soon settled in and most were in a single file line as all were looking for the halfway point as the skies darkened. As the field neared the halfway point a bottom lane formed led by Biffle. On lap 77, Biffle at the head of the inside lane was in second, a lap later Biffle and Busch was side by side; at the halfway point Busch was the clear leader as green flag stops approached. Mears started the round of stops on lap 84; Busch came in for his stop from the lead on lap 86.
When the stops cycled through, Busch held the lead followed by Almirola, Joey Logano, Mears and Kasey Kahne in fifth.
The fourth caution came out on lap 93 for debris; the top nine stayed out. The green came out on lap 97 with Busch taking the low lane and Almirola up high. As the field entered turn three a lap later Biffle got into Kahne setting off a massive crash that ended with Kyle Busch on his roof. Replays showed that Biffle, thanks to a shove from Gilliland, was turned into Kahne; in all 24 cars were involved and many were done for the day including Logano, Paul Menard, Gilliland, Clint Bowyer, McMurray and Denny Hamlin.
After a short red flag, four minutes, forty seconds and a long caution period, the restart came on lap 104 under threatening skies. Almirola slid into first, Brian Vickers too over second, Busch was third, Mears fourth.
Light rain showers brought caution seven on lap 108. Shortly after on lap 113 the field was led down pit road and the red flag was displayed again. Nearly an hour later Almirola was declared the winner and celebrated in soggy victory lane.
Denny Hamlin finished sixth, Michael McDowell was seventh; Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top ten.
Jeff Gordon, who finished 12th Sunday remains atop the Sprint Cup standings. Earnhardt Jr. managed a 14th and moved up to second in the standings. Jimmie Johnson who was unable to rejoin the field after the first crash was scored 42nd and fell to third. Brad Keselowski finished 18th and remains fourth, Matt Kenseth finished 20th and holds onto fifth in the standings.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway next Sunday.