The Inside Line: It's good to be with 'The King'

 

The Sports Network

(SportsNetwork.com) - Aric Almirola was only 112 days old when Richard Petty drove the No. 43 car to his historic 200th and final NASCAR win in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 4, 1984.

Petty, nicknamed "The King" for winning seven championships and scoring his record number of victories in NASCAR's premier series, did not go to Daytona's victory lane right away after he took the checkered flag. He first went to the press box to meet up with President Ronald Reagan. As the first U.S. President to attend a NASCAR race, Reagan gave the starting command for that event while flying to Daytona Beach, Florida, on board Air Force One.

Earning just over $43,000 for his 1984 Firecracker 400 win, Petty arrived to victory lane when the skies had opened up over the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

It would be 30 years and two days later before that legendary car number returned to victory lane at Daytona. Almirola, who is in his third year driving the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, became a first-time race winner in the Sprint Cup Series.

In a bit of irony, Almirola was awarded the victory in Sunday's Coke Zero 400 when NASCAR officials called the race after 112 of the scheduled 160 laps were completed due to rain. Almirola's payday amounted to $371,476. The event was scheduled for Saturday night but postponed until the following day because of inclement weather.

"It's really cool to know all that history and to realize that the 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport's history, and to have the opportunity to drive that race car has been really special from the day that I stepped foot in it," Almirola said. "All I wanted to do from the very first time I drove it was get it to victory lane. It took two-and-a-half years, I guess, but I finally did it."

Almirola is of Cuban descent and hails from Tampa. The 30-year-old driver has now won a race in each one of NASCAR's three national series. His first Nationwide Series victory came in 2007 at Milwaukee, where he started on the pole and then handed the car over to regular Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin to finish. Almirola was a member of JGR's development program at the time. He has two wins in the Camping World Truck Series.

Almirola became the sixth active driver to claim his maiden Cup Series victory at Daytona, joining Derrike Cope (February 1990), Michael Waltrip (February 2001), Greg Biffle (July 2003), Trevor Bayne (February 2011) and David Ragan (July 2011).

"I couldn't have dreamed of a better place to get my first win," Almirola said. "I went to Tampa (last week) to do a lot of pre-event media for Daytona, and I said, 'Man, 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 and watched the Daytona 500 and watched the Firecracker 400s (now called Coke Zero 400)."

Petty, the co-owner of Almirola's team, missed out on victory lane celebrations at Daytona, as he returned to his home in North Carolina on Sunday morning. The NASCAR Hall of Famer turned 77 this past Wednesday.

Until Almirola's win, the 43 car had not been to victory lane since April 18, 1999 when John Andretti won at Martinsville. That was 543 races ago, but Petty had always been optimistic he would see that famed car number return to victory lane.

"If you look back at the history of Petty Enterprises (now Richard Petty Motorsports), all the turmoil we've been through in the last seven, eight years and all that stuff, I never give up on the thing," Petty said during a conference call after Almirola's win. "So it was one of those deals that I said, "OK, if I keep working at it long enough, we're going to be able to overcome all this.'

"Just winning one race doesn't overcome it. Don't get me wrong. But it puts you in a higher speed track, and you know you can do it. It proves that we can do it, the drivers know we can do it, and I think it's just going to make it that much easier to go from here. Everybody has got to have a start, and I think this will get us started pretty good."

Since joining RPM prior to the start of the 2012 Sprint Cup season, Almirola has recorded one win, four top-five finishes and 14 top-10s as well as one pole, which came in May 2012 at Charlotte. He finished 20th in points two years ago and 18th this past season.

"When I came here in 2012, Richard Petty Motorsports was on the rebound and had been through some turmoil," he said. "I was so grateful that they thought I could be the guy who could contribute to that and could help get the 43 car back to where it needed to be and to get the 43 car back to victory lane more importantly."

Almirola's victory at Daytona has all but assured his and the No. 43 team's first appearance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Almirola, currently 21st in points, became the 11th different winner in the series this season.

With NASCAR's new Chase format, the field of drivers has expanded to 16. Almirola is currently positioned 10th on the Chase grid. Eight races remain before the regular season concludes and the field is set for the playoffs.

"To be in the Chase and to be able to go race for a championship, it's really special, and our race team deserves that," Almirola noted.

Read more Sprint Cup stories from the Miami Herald

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