After a 545-race drought, Richard Petty's famous No. 43 is back in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory lane. And 30 years after the King capped off his record 200 victories with a Presidential audience, Aric Almirola brought NASCAR's most-famous numeral back to the winner circle at the Daytona International Speedway.
Rains that plagued the World Center of Racing from the time the teams unloaded on Thursday and postponed the event to this morning finally brought an end to the Coke Zero 400 after 112 of the 160 laps had been completed. Almirola, a Florida native who took the lead on the race's final restart from Kurt Busch and then held off Brian Vickers before the rains returned, led 14 laps in scoring his first-career Sprint Cup victory. Vickers claimed second, ahead of Busch, Casey Mears, and rookie Austin Dillon.
Denny Hamlin, who won the previous restrictor plate race at Talladega in April and swept his preliminary races at Daytona back in February, took a sixth-place finish. Michael McDowell scored a terrific seventh-place result, with Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer, and Almirola's Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose rounding out the top-ten.
In addition to the rain showers, two major accidents plagued the day and took out a number of top contenders.
On lap 20, with a competition caution within reach, a 16-car-melee broke out exiting the fourth turn. Ricky Stenhouse Jr's car broke loose, causing Jeff Gordon to swerve in an attempt to evade contact. That took him into the right-rear of Tony Stewart, hooking Stewart into Stenhouse and touching off the accident that eliminated, among others, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, A.J. Allmendinger, Carl Edwards, Kyle Larson, and Trevor Bayne, in addition to Stewart and Stenhouse, from contention. Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all sustained minor damage and eventually lost a lap. Allmendinger and Johnson's races were finished, while the others all eventually made it back to the track in various states of repair.
Then on a restart from a debris yellow on lap 98, a second, much larger accident occurred when a bumpdraft-gone-awry from Greg BIffle turned Kasey Kahne into Joey Logano as the pack steamed down the backstretch towards turn three. A 26-car wreckfest commenced, collecting early leaders David GIlliland, David Ragan, Jamie McMurray (who's car flew through the air briefly before landing on all four wheels), Reed Sorenson, and Landon Cassill, in addition to Biffle and Kenseth. Other contenders wiped out in the wreck included Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte, and Kyle Busch. Busch's car wound up on its lid on the turn three apron after a late hit from Cole Whitt toppled the car onto it's roof. Busch was unhurt and hopped out of his battered ride once safety workers managed to get it righted. Hamlin and Bowyer both took wild spins through the grass in the melee but later rebounded for their top-10 finishes.
The victory for Almirola - coming in his 125th-career start - was the first for the No. 43 since John Andretti rallied from a lap down to win at Martinsville in April 1999. It was also the first time since the 1981 Daytona 500 that a Petty-owned 43 car won at the World Center of Racing, as Petty's famous 200th win came in a Mike Curb-owned machine. Prior to his driver's triumph Sunday, The King was the only man to take the number that is synonymous with stock car success to victory on its biggest stage, having done so 10 times. The 43 has now recorded 199 victories at NASCAR's top level.
Depsite taking damage in the early melee, Gordon finished 12th and continues to lead the standings over Earnhardt Jr. (14th at the rain-soaked finish) and Johnson (42nd). Keselowski (18th) and Kenseth (20th) round out the top-five. Almirola becomes the 11th driver to win a race this season and could be in line to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Petty's car has not had a top-10 finish in the final standings since Bobby Hamilton was ninth in 1996.