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Almirola, RPM win saved NASCAR from forgettable Daytona weekend


Thirty years ago, everything lined up just right for NASCAR.

The 1984 Fourth of July weekend witnessed the sport’s all-time winningest driver, Richard Petty, score his milestone 200th win. He did so at stock car racing’s cathedral, Daytona International Speedway in a near photo finish — and as if it needed a kicker, with the President of the United States in attendance.

Who could have foreseen then that it would be three decades before Petty’s No. 43 would once again grace Daytona’s famed victory circle — a location it had visited nine times prior?

History shows that was indeed the case, as on Sunday, 30 years after Petty’s final NASCAR victory, Aric Almirola drove the Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 machine to his first Cup Series win in the rain-delayed and rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at the “World Center of Speed.”

In all honesty, though, Petty’s 1984 triumph and Almirola’s 2014 victory have little in common. Yes, the stylized number survives, but little else remains. In ’84, Petty drove a Pontiac; today, Almirola sports a Ford. The iconic STP logo and paint scheme adorned Petty’s ride; Almirola was cloaked in a fitting Air Force blue hue. 

Maybe the most glaring difference lies in the team itself: Petty ­didn’t win No. 200 under the Petty Enterprises banner; that season, he took his number and sponsor to a team fielded by Mike Curb before returning in 1986 to Level Cross, N.C. Almirola didn’t hang one for Petty Enterprises, either. The winningest organization in NASCAR history was no more following the 2008 season when it evolved, thanks to a series of mergers and investors, into what is known today as Richard Petty Motorsports. “The King” has his minority stake in the operation — and is still as passionate about the sport as ever, at the track nearly every weekend — but is largely a figurehead for the team.

Unlike that July Fourth weekend 30 years ago, nothing could go right for NASCAR at Daytona this year. It battled sporadic rain from the moment the circus hit the beach on Thursday. That rain forced the postponement, cancellation and delay of nearly every planned event — from practice and qualifying sessions to the Cup race itself.

Even when the green flag dropped, it seemed NASCAR could not catch a break. A grinding 16-car wreck eliminated many heavy hitters just prior to the 20-lap mark. Another, on lap 99, thinned the field further. By the time the race was mercifully red-flagged for rain on lap 112, 36 of the 43 cars had officially been involved in one (or both) of the melees.

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But, now as then, one constant rose above all else on these two very different weekends: The silhouette of NASCAR, Richard Petty — complete with Charlie 1 Horse, wrap-around shades and tea-cup-sized belt buckle — gave the weekend its appropriate send-off. In 1984, he himself reached an unreachable number. In 2014, his driver, Almirola, achieved the life-long goal he’d set forth: to win at NASCAR’s highest level. 

And in the process, he drove the sport’s most famous car number onto the sport’s most hallowed slab of real estate: Daytona’s Victory Lane.

“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better place to get my first win,” Almirola said following a soggy victory celebration. “Of all the places I could pick to win, I would pick Daytona because I grew up two hours away. I’ve sat in these grandstands — the Daytona 500, the Firecracker 400s. As a young kid, coming over here and watching, (I) dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level at this racetrack.

“Not only have I done that, I’ve went to Victory Lane. I’m very appreciative of that — I think it’s very cool that we won on this weekend. It’s 30 years to the weekend that ‘The King’ won his 200th race with the president here. That’s really special.”

“Well, 30 years ago is history and today is today,” Petty said. “So to be able to win the race, win it for the Air Force, Fourth of July, you know, the whole thing is just great.”

With that in mind, maybe this year’s long, soggy July Fourth weekend lined up better for NASCAR than originally thought.

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.