Richard Petty’s 43 car visited victory lane at the Daytona 500 seven times during his legendary career. “The King” also won three Firecracker 400s (today’s Coke Zero 400) at Daytona International Speedway. His last Daytona win came on July 4, 1984.
For 30 years, the 43 car did not win again in Daytona. A trip to Victory Lane that once seemed to be on auto pilot had become almost Mission Impossible.
In 2014, that changed. Tampa’s Aric Almirola drove a smart race in the car made famous by Petty and won the Coke Zero 400.
He also took advantage of Mother Nature after rain halted the race after 112 laps, 48 laps short of the scheduled distance. The weather did not curtail the celebration.
The victory remains the only win for Almirola during his Sprint Cup career that spans 85 races. The former University of Central Florida student finished 17th in the 2015 driver standings. Another win at Daytona is not out of the question.
Almirola starts 34th in Sunday’s Daytona 500 after finishing 19th in the second race of Thursday’s Can-Am Duel. The good news for Almirola is that at no track other than Talladega is starting position is less important.
Restrictor plate tracks such as those two, where speeds are controlled, can routinely produce surprise winners. Trevor Bayne’s only career victory came at Daytona in 2011. All four of Michael Waltrip’s career victories came at either Daytona or Talladega.
With the cars running in big packs, a driver can be 35th on one lap and third just five laps later. It is just as easy to fall from the front of the field to the rear.
It is also possible for multiple contenders to be taken out in a huge wreck known as “The Big One.” It is rare when such a wreck does not occur.
For his part, Almirola is striving to make the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. After finishing just a few points out of the top 12 in 17th place, he is ready to go.
“Every single guy on my race team’s got a fire in their belly to go get started in 2016,” he said on a recent media tour. “We want to make the Chase and we feel like we’re going to.”
Fans usually show up at NASCAR tracks, or watch races on television, rooting for a particular driver. For central Florida and Tampa Bay racing enthusiasts without an allegiance, Aric Almirola might be one to look at.
It would be good to see the 43 car in Victory Lane again.