By MARK LONG
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It had been more than 15 years since the iconic No. 43 drove to Victory Lane.
So waiting through two days of thunderstorms and three red flags was relatively easy for Aric Almirola and his Richard Petty Motorsports team.
Almirola won the rain-delayed and rain-shortened NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, putting Petty’s famed blue car back on top for the first time since 1999.
Almirola’s first Cup win came on the same weekend Petty celebrated the 30th anniversary of his 200th career win. The 30-year-old Almirola was just a baby when Petty picked up that milestone victory.
“The 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport’s history,” Almirola said. “And to have that opportunity to drive that race car has been really special from the day that I stepped foot in it. 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.”
Petty wasn’t around for the festivities, having already left Daytona during one of the many delays. He didn’t miss much considering steady rain put a slight damper on the post-race party.
NASCAR, though, patched through the 7-time NASCAR champion nicknamed “The King” on a conference call afterward and talked about how he never lost faith despite years of struggles as a team owner.
“If you look back at the history of Petty Enterprises and all the turmoil we’ve been through, I never gave up on the thing,” Petty said. “It was one of those deals I said, ‘OK, if I keep working at it long enough, we’re going to be able to overcome all of this.’ Just because we won a race doesn’t mean we’ve overcome it, don’t get me wrong. But it puts in a higher speed track. You know you can do it.
“Everybody’s got to have a start and I think this will be starting it pretty good.”
The Coke Zero 400 was originally scheduled to go off Saturday night but steady rain forced it to be postponed a day. When it did finally get started Sunday, it was interrupted several more times.
There were three red flags, two of them because of huge accidents that took out most of the 43-car field and several top contenders. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch were among those knocked out of contention.
Biffle and Kahne started the second massive wreck, a 25-car fiasco that ended with Busch getting flipped upside-down in his No. 18 Toyota.
“It just felt like a slow carnival ride,” Busch said.