Aric Almirola earns first career Sprint Cup win in rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

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There’s no other way to explain it: Mother Nature is a Richard Petty fan.

With persistent rain falling for the third time in Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 — due to rain postponing the originally scheduled race on Saturday — NASCAR officials decided to call the race after 112 of the scheduled 160 at Daytona International Speedway laps and declared Aric Almirola and the legendary No. 43 Ford of Richard Petty Motorsports the winner.

The win comes 30 years almost to the day that Petty earned the 200th and final win of his legendary Hall of Fame career, coming at Daytona and in front of then-U.S. President, the late Ronald Reagan. Almirola was only 12 days old when Petty won that race.

It was Almirola’s first career Sprint Cup victory in 125 starts and also the first time that the No. 43 has reached victory lane since John Andretti in April 1999 in Martinsville.

“Man, this is so awesome,” Almirola told TNT. “The amount of effort that has gone into this race team this year, with everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports trying to get better and trying to build this race team back to a winning race team the way it deserves to be, it’s been so cool to watch it grow.

“To get this US Air Force Ford Fusion into victory lane, 30 years to the weekend that Ricahrd Petty won his 200th win, is really, really special. The Good Lord was really looking out for us today. We had a really fast car nonetheless, but I’ll take ’em any way we can get ’em.

“And we’re going to be in the Chase. This race team deserves to be in the Chase. I told everybody at the beginning of the year that I promised I’d get them to victory lane and, lo and behold, we’ve done it.”

By virtue of the victory, which came 48 laps shy of the scheduled 160 laps, Almirola all but punches his ticket to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, marking the second time RPM has made the 10-race playoff (Kasey Kahne did so in 2010, finishing 10th in the final season standings).

“I’ve said time and time again how much I wanted to win this race,” Almirola said. “This is my home race, two hours from Tampa, Florida (where he grew up). I grew up sitting in those grandstands watching the Daytona 500 and Firecracker 400 and dreamed about what it would be like to race here — and man, I just took the 43 car to victory lane today in Daytona.

“This is so cool to get all these guys, who’ve been working on this race team for a long team and haven’t had a chance to get to victory lane with this 43 car, this is so, so special.”

Brian Vickers finished second, followed by Kurt Busch, who led the most laps before the race was ruled official.

Casey Mears finished fourth, followed by Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Michael McDowell, Danica Patrick in eighth, Clint Bowyer and Almiroloa’s RPM teammate Marcos Ambrose in 10th.

When the green flag dropped Sunday, drivers were fighting to get to the halfway point of the race due to more rain on the National Weather Service radar that appears to be closing in on the area.

The race got underway at about 11:22 am ET. Pole sitter David Gilliland gave up his lead on Lap 5 to Matt Kenseth. The race was placed under caution just one lap later due to, what else, rain.

After a few moments and five more laps under caution, NASCAR decided to red flag the event at Lap 11 when rain began to fall steadily, primarily in the backstretch area. Cars were brought to pit road, where they sat until the race resumed after an approximately 22-minute rain delay.

Kenseth assumed his spot at the front of the pack with Gilliland right behind, but Tony Stewart made fast work of getting to the front and led a number of laps until disaster struck for him and 14 other drivers.

On Lap 21, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. appeared to get loose. Jeff Gordon, who was behind Stenhouse, attempted to slow down but inadvertently got into the right rear of Stewart’s car, sending him spinning.

Like a pinball, Stewart triggered a wreck that collected several favorites to win the race, including himself, Stenhouse, Gordon, Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski, fellow Stewart Haas racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Danica PatrickDenny Hamlin, Kenseth, Marcos AmbroseTrevor BayneAJ Allmendinger,Kyle LarsonJimmie JohnsonMichael WaltripCarl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Although Stenhouse told TNT that he got loose after the car in front of him, driven by Bobby Labonte, suddenly slowed, Stewart was not a happy camper nonetheless.

“We’re a quarter of a lap away from getting a competition caution, and Stenhouse is going to be a hero,” Stewart told TNT. “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to him there, but that took out a bunch of good cars for no reason.

“…No matter what I say right now, somebody’s going to be mad and somebody’s going to disagree with it. But I think it’s a pretty dumb excuse to have the caution come out 500 yards too early.”

Then came Lap 98.

Racing against the possibility of more rain on the horizon, the field was heading into Turn 1 on Lap 98 when it appeared on TV replay that Greg Biffle‘s Ford got into the rear of Kasey Kahne‘s Chevrolet, spinning him and then hooking the Ford of Joey Logano, starting sheer mayhem.

From that point on, drivers begun flying all over the race track, with Kyle Busch winding up upside down in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Fortunately, the younger Busch brother was uninjured. His car was slowly righted onto its wheels and Busch climbed out, receiving a round of applause from the crowd.

According to NASCAR statisticians, the following cars were involved in the wreck:

Kasey Kahne, Clint BowyerAlex Bowman, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, David GillilandJustin AllgaierRyan NewmanPaul MenardJosh WiseMichael AnnettRyan TruexMatt KensethBobby LabonteJamie McMurrayLandon CassillMarcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, David RaganDenny HamlinDanica PatrickBrad KeselowskiTerry LabonteReed Sorenson and Michael McDowell.

“I’m just so unhappy,” Biffle told TNT. “It was just close-quarters racing. Kasey went into the middle and ran into the back of the 13 car and slowed way up and I hit the back of the 5. We weren’t lined up. He moved down for some reason when he hit the 13 (Casey Mears) or something, but just a chain reaction.

“You just never know cars are going to slow down that quick. I had a shove from the 34 (David Ragan) from behind and you just can’t react that fast, unfortunately.”

“I knew there was going to be trouble there,” David Gilliland said. “I probably should have given myself more room. Cars were just sliding around all over. … What a mess. Not the day we were looking forward.”

Kahne noted, “I was just getting hit from behind. I was in a tough spot. … I’m not exactly sure what happened. It’s too bad.”

Kyle Busch said, “It just felt like a slow carnival ride. I guess that’s fitting for the Fourth of July, but not here for Daytona. … I just got T-boned at the end there and toppled me over.”

Jamie McMurray added, “It was a helpless feeling.”

The race resumed on Lap 104 with Aric Almirola in the lead, only to have the race go back under caution due to rain five laps later. Three laps later, the race was redflagged and after a more than 30-minute wait, Almirola had earned his first career Sprint Cup victory.

We’ll be back with more shortly.

 

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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