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.

 

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”