The commitment of Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) and all its partners to get into The Chase came to fruition Sunday afternoon at the perfect place, The World Center of Racing, the Daytona International Speedway. Putting the No. 43 back where it should be, Aric Almirola and the No. 43 U.S. Air Force team won the rain-delayed and rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 Sunday afternoon. The win is Almirola's first in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It also brings RPM their fifth and Petty their 273rd win in the Sprint Cup Series- the most of all-time.
Under the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points system, a win nearly guarantees you a position in The Chase. Almirola is currently positioned 10th of the 16 drivers who make up the Championship Chase. Almirola is the 11th different Cup winner this year.
The win was full of history and milestones for the organization and Almirola. Almirola parked the No. 43 in Victory Lane for his first Cup win 30 years after "The King" did for his 200th. With "The King" celebrating his 77th birthday this past weekend, Almirola gave him the only birthday present he wanted. In addition, the No. 43 hadn't won since 1999 and now that streak is snapped with the U.S. Air Force Ford covered with confetti on the July 4 weekend.
Continuing the success of the day, Marcos Ambrose and the No. 9 DEWALT/Wounded Warrior Project Ford team finished 10th in Sunday's race and moved to 19th in the championship standings. His 10th-place finish is RPM's 105th. Ambrose continues to lead RPM and Petty-owned teams in Top-10's since 1992. For Ambrose, it is ironically his 43rd Top-10 finish in the Sprint Cup Series.
A recap of the day follows:
Aric Almirola, No. 43 U.S. Air Force Ford Fusion
After showers delayed the Saturday night scheduled race, Almirola finally took the green flag from the 15th spot on Sunday afternoon. The outside line showed advantage early on. Stuck in the inside line early, Almirola fell back to 21st before rain paused the race for over 25 minutes. During the red flag, Almirola told the team that he liked the No. 43 Air Force Ford's handling and observed that the inside line was the slower line.
On Lap 12, the field went back to green-flag racing. Still in the inside lane, the No. 43 Air Force Ford fell to 28th. On Lap 21, Ricky Stenhouse and Tony Stewart made contact and collected 14 other cars. As cars were collected, damaged and stopped cars littered the race track. Spotter Tyler Green talked Almirola through the wreckage as the Tampa native's quick moves got the Air Force Ford through with no damage.
During the caution, Crew Chief Trent Owens called for a four-tire pit stop and made sure the car was packed full of fuel. Almirola restarted in the 15th spot, again in the inside lane. On the restart, Almirola quickly maneuvered to the outside line, three-wide. He drove into the Top-10 and held the sixth spot when NASCAR Officials called a caution for debris.
This time, Owens called for a fuel-only pit stop since the tires looked good and the Air Force Ford was fast. The stop gave the No. 43 team the second spot on the restart. Racing up front for the first four laps, Almirola didn't have anyone to push him and was pushed out of the draft. He fell back to 15th and settled back into the top line. Showing the speed of his Ford Fusion, Almirola drove back up to sixth. The field settled in for a few laps and raced single file.
By Lap 84, green-flag pit stops began. The No. 43 team strategized with Ford teammates on which lap to pit and decided to come down on Lap 86. The Air Force crew changed two tires and made sure the car was packed full of fuel. Almirola returned to the track, and by Lap 95, Officials called another debris caution. Having just pitted, Owens told Almirola to stay out.
Again, Almirola restarted with the No. 43 Air Force Ford in the second spot behind Kurt Busch on Lap 97. Almirola challenged Busch for the lead early. As he passed Busch for the lead, another accident near the front of the field set off a 26-car pileup. The wreckage caused NASCAR Officials to display the red flag with the No. 43 Air Force Ford in the lead. After displaying the red flag for five minutes, NASCAR Officials displayed the yellow flag. Again, Owens told Almirola to stay out as weather was looming.
Almirola led the field to the restart with Busch on the inside. The two battled for the lead for the following six green-flag laps. With Brian Vickers right on his tail, Almirola used a side draft off Busch to earn the top spot as NASCAR Officials displayed the yellow and then red flags for weather.
Almirola got out of the car and joined his crew at the No. 43 pit box. Clouds filled the sky and temperatures dropped but rain only fell on the backstretch. NASCAR Officials worked to dry the track. They made progress on Turn Two and were continuing to dry the backstretch when lightning and thunder rolled in. A downpour quickly followed, and they lost the track. The Coke Zero 400 was called after 112 of the 160 scheduled laps. Almirola won his first Sprint Cup Series race and won in the No. 43 for the first time since 1999, all on the weekend of the 30th anniversary of "The King" Richard Petty's 200th win on the same soil.
"I grew up two hours away from here in Tampa, and 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," said Almirola. "I can't believe I just took the 43 car to victory lane here at Daytona. This is amazing. We have had good cars, Top-10 cars. We have been right where we need to be to be competitive but just haven't gotten to that next level. This is so cool 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."
Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 DEWALT/Wounded Warrior Project Ford Fusion
Ambrose brought a "Camo" scheme courtesy of DEWALT to Daytona in honor of the Wounded Warrior Project this past weekend. The scheme turned out to be a perfect fit for the race with Ambrose sneaking his way through a 26-car melee and coming out with a 10th-place finish.
Ambrose started from the 18th spot and quickly found a drafting partner with Jimmie Johnson. This helped Ambrose move to 15th in the opening laps and into the middle of the field that saw three-wide racing. Ambrose was in the middle line for the opening laps and was surprised the top line had worked in so quickly.
Before Ambrose could make any moves, rain brought the race to a stop. On the restart, Ambrose moved to the top and drafted his way into 11th. On Lap 21 Ambrose was caught in the middle of a 12-car wreck that sent the DEWALT Ford spinning down the frontstretch and being hit by another car. Ambrose drove the car directly to the pit stall where the guys began to change all the tires and pull away sheet metal.
Not losing a lap, Ambrose made several pit stops as the team made repairs and fixed the damage. The team was able to secure the body damage, but the steering was still affected and the car had lost its aerodynamic advantages.
Restarting in the back of the pack, Ambrose said the car had lost speed and his steering was still off. However, his car led a second pack of cars up to the lead pack and Ambrose even went back into the Top-10. The team used a two-tire pit stop to stay with the lead pack and Ambrose was back in the hunt.
A caution on Lap 94 saw Ambrose come down pit road and the team attempted to fix the steering again. This was a blessing as on the restart, the big wreck occurred and Ambrose was able to slow down to avoid it all. On the restart, Ambrose raced back into 10th with his damaged car before the race was finally called for rain.
"It's a great day for Richard Petty Motorsports and everyone involved, said Ambrose after the race. "I'm really happy for Aric and 'The King' because we've all been working hard to get into The Chase. Hopefully we can do it too and get both cars in. Today was another plate race and we were beat up pretty bad in the first wreck. We had damage and our steering was out of line too. But, our guys did a great job fixing the damage and keeping us in the race. We didn't lose a lap and we raced back to the lead pack. We didn't have as much speed after the damage and I was in the back when the second big accident happened. I came to a near stop and just missed it all. We got right back up to 10th and we'll take a Top-10 out of Daytona. That's a few Top-10 finishes in the last couple weeks and we're going in a good direction."