NASCAR: Aric Almirola’s your wild card Chase entry for 2014

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We knew it had to be someone, and on Sunday in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400, we got our surprise winner that has benefited from NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format.

Indeed Aric Almirola, the 11th different winner of 2014, has now gone from winless and 23rd in the points to Chase entrant on the strength of being in the right place at the right time when NASCAR opted to call Sunday’s already rain-delayed race.

And Almirola’s win has reduced the number of Chase berths available for drivers without a win by one, down to five … for now.

Granted, over the last nine races before the Chase, you’d have still expected at least three more different winners between say, veterans Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer or Greg Biffle. Take the three potential winners to make a total of 13, and then add three at-large berths by virtue of points standings, and there would be your 16.

But with Almirola having secured one of the available six spots beyond the 10 prior winners, suddenly of that group of six, it’s now guaranteed one of them won’t be in the Chase.

With one more “wild card” race to go in the stretch of events before the Richmond cutoff in September – the Watkins Glen road course race in August – there remains the potential that another driver like an AJ Allmendinger, Brian Vickers or Almirola’s Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose could win that race and take away another at-large points berth.

None of this is to take away from Almirola and RPM’s accomplishments on Sunday. The win for Almirola is career validation in a sense – this is a driver who’s fought for the better part of six or seven years to fully make it into Sprint Cup, only really finding his footing the last year or two with RPM in the iconic and legendary “43.”

It’s about crew chief Trent Owens, a former Nationwide Series driver turned wrench-turner, winning his first ever Cup race on the box. It’s about competition director Sammy Johns, leading a team back from the brink of extinction a few years ago. And it’s about Richard Petty himself – with the team back in the winner’s circle for the first time since 1999, when it was still the iconic Petty Enterprises.

As the early “underdog” entry into the Chase, Almirola suddenly takes on the role occupied by other surprise Chase entrants in recent years – Kurt Busch with Furniture Row Racing a year ago, or Vickers with Red Bull Racing and Juan Pablo Montoya with Chip Ganassi Racing.

These are drivers you wouldn’t necessarily expect in the Chase, but like a baseball or football team getting hot at the right time, or right moment, they have themselves an opportunity to compete for a championship.

Perhaps a better analogy is one of the 43 team as an impressive mid-major basketball school that peaked late, won its conference championship, and captured an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament instead of a team from the power conferences (i.e. a Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports).

Heading into this weekend, you wouldn’t have projected Almirola as a title contender. But now, he and the 43 crew have a shot.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.