Aric Almirola wins the first race of his NASCAR Sprint Cup series career for the Coke Zero 400 in a rain plagued weekend, driving the #43 United States Air Force Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola is the 43rd driver to drive the #43 car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, with the last victory for the famed car at Martinsville Speedway, April 18th, 1999 with John Andretti piloting the car.
The last time the #43 went to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway, prior to today’s victory, was July 4th, 1984 with NASCAR’s Hall of Famer and legendary driver Richard Petty. This was the 30th anniversary weekend of Petty’s record 200th win and not to leave out his birthday was this past week. Richard Petty has 10 victories at the track.
Almirola becomes the 11th driver in the Chase, as he joins fellow drivers with a victory; Jimmie Johnson (3), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2), Brad Keselowski (2) Joey Logano (2), Kevin Harvick (2), Carl Edwards (2), Jeff Gordon (1), Kurt Busch (1), Kyle Busch (1), and Denny Hamlin (1). Any top 30 driver in the points standing with a victory will qualify for the NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup
“The good Lord was looking out for us today,” Almirola said when NASCAR decided to call the race at 2:56 p.m. ET, after the third red flag had been displayed for 56 minutes, as the track drying continued the skies opened up and fans fled the stands amid reports of lightning in the area. The remaining field only had 6 vehicles without incident.
The Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola was scheduled to be run Saturday evening under the lights but rain forced the race to be postponed until 11 a.m. Sunday. David Gilliland, who also won the pole position due to qualifying being shorten by rain, led the field of 43 cars to the green but within six short laps the first caution flag waved for rain followed by the red flag shortly thereafter.
After a 25 minute 43 second break the drivers climbed back into their vehicles, only to have a wreck just before the scheduled competition caution at lap 20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got loose near the front of the pack just 19 laps into the race and only 7 laps after the short break, Gordon tried to avoid Stenhouse Jr. as Gordon moved to the left to miss a potential crash, turned into Tony Stewart collecting several other cars in the process.
“The #17 car got sideways on a lap where we’re all getting a competition (caution),” said Stewart in the garage. “I guess Ricky thought it paid something to get to lap 20.”
The cars with major damage were Gordon #24, Stewart #14, Harvick #4, Danica Patrick #10, Johnson #48, Earnhardt Jr. #88, Matt Kenseth #20, Hamlin #11, Trevor Bayne #21, Kyle Larson #42, A.J. Allmendinger #47, Keselowski #2, Michael Waltrip #66, Marcos Ambrose #9, Edwards #99 and Stenhouse Jr. #17.
The field went back green on lap 28 and racing continued with the threat of weather looming in the skies as they grew darker with reports of rain coming.
On lap 97 another huge crash sending Kyle Busch onto his roof, with at least 26 cars involved. Greg Biffle ran into the back of Kasey Kahne, who was slowing down, and turned him in front of the field going into Turn 3.
After exiting the infield care center Kyle Busch was still smiling as he compared the experience of flipping upside down to a ‘slow carnival ride.’
“I can’t believe all the cars we’ve wrecked today, kind of uncharacteristic.” Earnhardt Jr. said during the final red flag before the race was called.
Almirola scored his first victory by keeping the #43 car out of both major crashes that took out more than half the field. Brian Vickers finished 2nd, Kurt Busch finished 3rd, Casey Mears finished 4th and Austin Dillon finished 5th, Denny Hamlin, Michael McDowell, Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose complete the top 10.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Camping World RV Sales 301, Sunday July 13. Coverage for the race will begin at 1 p.m. ET on TNT with qualifying held at the track Friday, July 11th at 4:30 p.m. ET with coverage on Fox Sports 1.