Saturday, Nov 26

Mother Nature was the real winner of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway

Wednesday, Jul 09 2583

For die-hard NASCAR fans in attendance at the Daytona International Speedway last weekend, it seemed as though the weather was against getting any racing done at the track. The event began with knockout qualifying on Friday which was waved off early due to rain. The scheduled three rounds of qualifying were reduced to one, with David Gilliland the beneficiary – and the pole winner for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola.

Qualifying began with a 25-minute Round One for all 44 cars entered; 24 cars then advanced to a 10-minute Round 2 which never took place. The format would’ve then advanced 12 cars to Round 3, a five-minute sprint for the pole.

Gilliland, driving the No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, led Round One with a fast lap of 199.322 mph.  And while he was considered somewhat lucky Friday, it should not be overlooked that when it comes to high-speed restrictor-plate qualifying, he’s good. This marks his second Daytona pole; his first came in the 2007 DAYTONA 500. He has one other NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole, at 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway in October 2006. Friday’s effort also earns him a spot in the 2015 Sprint Unlimited At Daytona.

Gilliland acknowledged having extra confidence at the biggest tracks on the schedule, saying the Coke Zero 400 is “something we circled on the calendar at the start of the year. And restrictor plate racing … it’s the great equalizer and we feel like we have a 100-percent chance, as good as anybody, of winning Saturday night.”

Reed Sorensen qualified second (199.221) in the No. 36 Golden Corral Chevrolet. Qualifying third was Landon Cassill (199.194) in the No. 40 Newtown Building Supplies Chevrolet. The 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte (198.970) will start fourth in the No. 33 Thunder Coal Chevrolet, while reigning and six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson (198.790) will start fifth in the No. 48 Lowe’s Patriotic Chevrolet.

When fans started pouring into the facility early Saturday, the rains started pouring down from the heavens as well. Early in the afternoon, the normally bustling Midway section of the track was almost entirely closed, leaving the assembled masses huddled in whatever covered areas they could find to get out of the weather. Although NASCAR made numerous announcements throughout the afternoon about the lightning in the area, as well as the need to get under cover for safety, thousands of fans started to try and weather the storm at roughly 6:00 p.m.,and the air titans took to the surface in what amounted to a parade of sorts.

After more than three hours of on-screen entertainment, a concert by country-music star Lee Brice, and pre-race ceremonies that almost everyone in the stands knew were simply to fill time, NASCAR announce that the 56th annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway had been postponed. As mentioned earlier, the weather had been bad most of the day, and was getting progressively worse as the evening rolled on. This begs the question as to why the race wasn't rescheduled earlier, allowing fans to retreat to the relative comfort of their hotels instead of the humid rainy track?

When weary fans started to awaken on Sunday morning, the forecast for the day had not improved. Many weather forecasters were calling for increasing showers by 11:00 a.m., which so happened to coincide with the exact start time for the advertised 160-lap, 400-mile race. That unfortunate fact didn't deter the greatest fans in sports, and those who were able to return did so hoping for a miracle of sorts.

Upon returning to the world center of racing, it was immediately apparent that the track was ill-prepared to handle the crowds that chose to try and witness the rescheduled event. Many of the volunteers who manned the admission gates, security posts and refreshment stands were not able to come back for another day of racing, leaving the facility understaffed and leaving many fans discouraged. The Midway was mostly packed up as well, which made for a long walk into the track.

It was obvious from the drop of the green flag that the forecasted storms were foremost on the minds of drivers and crews n the race. The rains came again Sunday, bringing out the first caution period on Lap 7 and leading to a red flag that lasted 25 minutes and 43 seconds. After the restart, mayhem ensued and on Lap 21 a crash involving 16 cars on the frontstretch brought out the first yellow. The crash was high-profile to say the least; the list of drivers involved included five former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions – Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

That crash seemed almost minimal compared to what transpired on Lap 98, when 26 cars tangled in the backstretch, bringing out another red flag that lasted almost five minutes.

Aric Almirola avoided both melees, two strokes of luck that preceded a third.  With heavy rain visible in the area, and light mist falling on parts of the track, NASCAR threw the red flag with 112 laps (of the scheduled 160 laps) in the books. After nearly an hour and an increasingly heavy downpour, NASCAR declared the race official, giving Almirola and Petty Motorsports the historic victory that was accented by a most-appropriate sponsorship for the No. 43 Ford on the holiday weekend, from the United States Air Force.

While Almirola welcomed the rainout, he didn’t consider it an absolute necessity to win Sunday. His Ford, after all, led the second-most laps on the day, 14, including the last seven.  

Said Almirola: “We don’t feel like this race was handed to us.”

By mid-afternoon, Richard Petty Motorsports’ famed No. 43 was back in Daytona’s Gatorade Victory Lane thanks to Aric Almirola’s rain-shortened win in the 56th Annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola. Thirty years ago – July 4, 1984 to be exact – Petty won this race, the last of his 200 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories.

“Thirty years ago, that’s history; today is the future,” Petty said.

For Almirola, it was his first  Sprint Cup victory, coming at what he considers his “home” track. He is a Tampa, Fla., native and attended Daytona races regularly as a youth, dreaming of driving on the famed track. The win almost assures Almirola of a berth in NASCAR’s season-ending “playoffs,” the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

“Obviously, this is really special,” Almirola said. “I grew up just two hours away. I sat in these grandstands watching the DAYTONA 500, watching the 400. And all the history behind the 43 car, I’m really appreciative of that.”

Brian Vickers (No. 55 Aaron’s/FSU National Championship Toyota) finished second, while Kurt Busch (No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet) rounded out the top three; Busch led the most laps on the day, 36.

Many of the fans, and several drivers, questioned the timing of the red flag that finally ended the event. There have been many excuses given by NASCAR for their decision to end the race so early in the day, but the most obvious logic behind calling the event official is probably because they simply gave up.

Given the forecast, they were lucky to have gotten so much of the race completed in the first place. As soon as the rain began o fall, the grandstands began to empty. Even if they had decided to resume the event, it would have been to a virtually empty facility, and that just doesn't work. Still, NASCAR needs to look at the plans they have in place for rain delays, as well as scheduling. The weather is becoming more and more unstable, and the rain shortened Coke Zero 400 is, as they say, just the tip of the iceberg.

Tickets to next year’s 57th running of the DAYTONA 500 and other Budweiser Speedweeks 2015 events are available by calling 1-800-PITSHOP or online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com.

Fans can follow the latest NASCAR news on Twitter, using the hashtag #NASCAR. Fans can also stay connected with Daytona International Speedway on TwitterFacebook and Pinterest for the latest news throughout the 2014 season. Fans can also follow the latest on DAYTONA Rising, the $400 million frontstretch renovation at the “World Center of Racing” by using #DAYTONARising on Twitter or visiting www.daytonarising.com.

Adam Sinclair

Adam has been a race fan since the first time he went through the tunnel under the Daytona International Speedway more than 30 years ago. He has had the privilege of traveling to races all across the state of Florida (as well as one race in Ohio), watching nearly everything with a motor compete for fame and glory, as well as participating in various racing schools to get the feel of what racecar drivers go through every week.  

Adam spent several years covering motorsports for Examiner.com., where he had the opportunity to see the racing world from behind the scenes as well as the grandstands. He invites everyone to follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus, and looks forward to sharing his enthusiasm for all things racing with the readers of SpeedwayDigest.com.

Be sure to tune in for his sports talk program, Thursday Night Thunder, where he discusses the latest in motorsports news with drivers, crew members, and fans. The show takes place (almost) every Thursday at 8:00 pm EST on the Speedway Digest Radio Network. 

Contact Adam: Email  

  

 

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