For years, Aric Almirola’s name in the record books has come with a weird asterisk. In 2007 at Milwaukee, he was just a part-time Nationwide (then Busch) Series driver for Joe Gibbs Racing trying to make a name for himself. Pegged as a backup for Denny Hamlin, Almirola was pressed into a start when the Cup driver’s helicopter ran late. Although running from the pole and dominating early, JGR chose to replace Almirola once Hamlin arrived. Hamlin slid in and rode on to an easy victory.
Almirola, who “earned” the trophy by starting the car has not won in the series since, and was 0-for-124 to begin his Sprint Cup career. So for many, he remains a relative unknown despite driving one of the most iconic cars in all of motorsports, the No. 43 formerly driven by “The King” Richard Petty. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, his low-key personality matches a soft track record: four career top-5 Cup finishes and just 15 career top 10s entering Sunday.
Now that stat line moves up just a tick after a “wild card” victory at Daytona made him an unlikely Chase candidate. How did it happen? Multiple red flags, two crashes totaling 35 cars in a race ultimately shortened by rain after ending nearly 20 hours after its original Saturday evening start time. Almirola’s car was fast, yes, but the No. 43 earned checkers more through a game of Survivor than anything else.
It’s a good moment for a good man, but somehow, the storybook sounds fitting. Maybe Almirola’s role in this sport is simply to be the man holding the asterisk.
“Through the Gears” we go after the last restrictor plate race of the regular season …
FIRST GEAR: The long and winding road for Richard Petty Motorsports
Almirola’s victory shouldn’t be completely understated; his car was fast, leading 14 laps on Sunday and the Richard Petty Motorsports program has been improving. The two-car operation, which likely earned its first Chase bid in five years, produced a storybook ending 30 years after Petty himself won his 200th and final Cup race at Daytona.
“Man, of all the places I could pick to win, I would pick Daytona because I grew up two hours away,” said Almirola, a Tampa native. “I've sat in these grandstands and watched the Daytona 500. I've watched the Firecracker 400s. Me and my family have loaded up every Christmas night after we'd eat Christmas dinner and we'd drive over here and get ready for Kart Week from the time I was eight years old until I was probably 16. That's what everybody always talked about, and as a young kid, coming over here and watching — (I) just dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level.”
The No. 43 car, earning its first victory since 1999 (John Andretti, Martinsville) made co-owner Petty proud, although he had already left the racetrack — he had to enjoy the win from home in North Carolina and phoned in for the post-race presser. His presence is important, but it’s new crew chief Trent Owens who came over from the Nationwide Series this season that’s worked wonders in getting a young driver and a growing team on the same page. Almirola, at just 29 years of age, has plenty of time to work out the kinks if they get it together. Congratulations came from all sides, including former Nationwide Series owner and current Cup rival Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Will RPM’s playoff bid result in a first-round exit? Most likely. But by simply making the field, this rare middle-class operation is taking a step in the right direction while keeping itself relevant for all nine months.
“Our sponsors, U.S. Air Force and Smithfield Foods and all the brands that they have and STP and GoBowling.com, all those people put in a lot of money to sponsor our race car,” Almirola added. “To be able to go and race for a championship and get that added exposure … everybody knows that sits in here, if you're not in the Chase during those 10 weeks, you don't even get talked about unless you're winning a race.”
SECOND GEAR: The plate race that would never end
Plate racing, for everyone connected to NASCAR, is an acquired taste. There is no neutrality, whether you’re a fan, driver or crewman; those four-holed squares dole out some high-level emotions of love and hate. On one side, three-wide, white-knuckle action for three hours produces some of the closest competition in any racing series you’ll ever see. Photo finishes are the norm, not the exception.
But the other side, shown through a myriad of rain delays, can make everyone want to tear their hair out. Only a half-dozen cars avoided some type of wreck Sunday, with two “Big Ones” tearing up the field and turning tempers high. The first incident, started among Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, left several heavy hitters inside the garage and smoke steaming out of Stewart’s ears.
“I guess is was just Stenhouse being an idiot,” he said. “It didn’t make much sense when we’re coming to the (competition) caution (on lap 20). We’re 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 others were blaming plate racing, either on camera, on the radio or in private once most media backed off. The drum beat louder after the second wreck, involving 26 cars and turning Kyle Busch upside down. Thankfully, all involved were OK but the damage for race teams will easily top seven figures.
“Just felt like a slow carnival ride,” said Busch, who was an innocent victim after Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle made contact. “I guess that’s fitting for the Fourth of July weekend — but not here in Daytona.”
In some ways, that statement could apply to all parts of this restrictor plate weekend. The race, filled with stops and starts, never developed a rhythm between Mother Nature’s interference and the major incidents. Fans, only some of whom stayed the extra day, wound up witnessing one of the weirder events in recent memory.
What’s so funny about how it all played out? The Daytona 500, after its own rain delay, wound up being one of the best plate races we’ve seen in years. When it works, it definitely works. But when it doesn’t, the cries over potential driver injury, a “forced” way for 43 cars to race together in a pack and possible plate removal grow louder. Will there be rule changes? I doubt it, for now at least. But no matter what NASCAR does, what we saw on Sunday is a possible product of this style of racing. You want four-wide at the checkers? Then you’re going to get an occasional clunky, weird, Demolition Derby where nothing appears to make any sense. That’s just part of it — the controversy which, in NASCAR’s mind, generates ratings and attention.
THIRD GEAR: Sorting through the wreckage
Behind Almirola, nice runs were checked in by Brian Vickers, Kurt Busch and Casey Mears, all of whom clocked in top-5 finishes. Vickers, for obvious reasons, wanted the race to restart but after a multiple delays (plus the criticism after February’s 500 ran 12-plus hours) NASCAR made the right call. The second-place finisher will always scoff at a race called early — that’s just the natural reaction of a competitive athlete. Vickers will recover, though. He logged a solid run at the perfect time, heading to a race he won last year in Loudon, N.H., this Sunday.
But suddenly, the guy to watch is Busch, who notched a fifth straight top-15 finish that all but assures him of a place inside the top 30 in points. Stewart-Haas Racing (though Kevin Harvick has clearly shown the speed to be competitive) is suffering from normal expansion growing pains. Busch bore the brunt of that, as bad luck combined with mechanical failures has found him on a roller-coaster of a ride. Through it all, though, the No. 41 team has earned its spot in the Chase. Remember Stewart a few years ago, barely clawing his way into the postseason field before turning it on behind the No. 14 and charging towards a third championship? If Busch keeps running like he did Sunday, posting consistent results, he could go a bit deeper than an expected first-round exit.
FOURTH GEAR: Can a lucky break turn Dillon’s season around?
NASCAR’s 2014 rookie battle has devolved into a story about one driver only: Kyle Larson. The other six candidates, in various stages of development, have all been a step or more behind since Austin Dillon snared the pole and a ninth-place effort in February’s Daytona 500. For Dillon, it’s been a disappointing effort, driving a car that was top 5 last year and collecting no other top-10 finishes entering Daytona’s July race.
But one thing you can say about Dillon is that he’s consistent, as he’s completing all but 11 laps on the year. That means a fifth-place effort, after dodging all the wrecks Sunday, left him 13th in points and his Chase hopes alive. That’s an ace card that rival Larson, whose season has been a bit of a roller coaster as well, simply does not have at the moment. In fact, all three cars at Richard Childress Racing (Dillon, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman) would make the Chase if the season ended today.
It’s a great boost for Dillon going forward into Loudon and then the final off week knowing that despite a sub-par effort, his team is still in it. The last half of the season, when rookies visit tracks for a second time, is often when we see the most improvement from freshmen; can Dillon step up and make a serious drive for the Chase?
Kudos to Michael McDowell, whose seventh was a career best for not only him but small-time Leavine Family Racing. The No. 95, which is running a limited schedule this season, has been notably improved from recent years. … Terry Labonte, who ran 11th, also deserves credit, running his second-to-last race in the Cup Series for the No. 32 Go FAS Racing team. The veteran is expected to retire following one final plate start, at Talladega in October. … David Gilliland, Reed Sorenson and Landon Cassill were one of the most unlikely trios to start at the front in NASCAR history, put there after a wild, rain-shortened qualifying session in which the underdogs used “suck-up” drafts to post higher speeds. Running up front early, their presence increased aggression at the front of the field as they raced with drivers not used to them being there. Combining to lead 14 laps amongst themselves, each should be commended for his effort, but plate racing is a cruel mistress; wrecks left them all outside the top 30 by race’s end.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.