Perseverance, 30 years of patience pays off for Richard Petty

1 Comment

NASCAR has been accused at times over the years – unfairly, I might add – of scripting the outcome of races.

In other words, the finish of certain races was predetermined – that is, if you believe the fertile imaginations of critics, naysayers and conspiracy theorists.

But even if that illogical belief were indeed true though, NASCAR couldn’t come close to writing the kind of script that led to Aric Almirola’s win in Sunday’s rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Without question, it was the greatest weekend in Richard Petty Motorsports (and before that, Petty Enterprises) history in three decades.

Consider:

1) Team owner Richard Petty turned 77 this past Wednesday.

2) Petty earned the 200th and final Cup race of his career during this same weekend at Daytona 30 years ago in 1984. And the congratulations line couldn’t have been much better: leading best wishes for Petty’s achievement that day in-person was then-President Ronald Reagan.

3) The No. 43 had not been in victory lane since John Andretti did so in April 1999 at Martinsville, and had not been in a Daytona victory lane since The King’s 200th win.

4) Almirola has all but qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, marking only the second time a Petty driver has attained that lofty goal (Kasey Kahne did so in 2010, finishing 10th in the final standings).

5) And then there’s little gem of a fact: While Petty obviously drove the majority of races, Almirola is actually the 43rd driver to drive arguably NASCAR’s most famous car number, the 43.

When he learned that in Sunday’s post-race press conference, Almirola responded simply, “No way.”

Yes, way, Aric.

The significance of what he did Sunday, even though it was in a rain-shortened event, was not lost upon Almirola.

“I’ve (now gone) to victory lane, and all the history behind the car and the race car and stuff, you know, I’m very appreciative of that and very cool – I think it’s very cool that we won on this weekend,” Almirola said. “It’s 30 years to the weekend that The King won his 200th race with the President here.  That’s really special.

“But I’m a little bit selfish and I’m more worried about the fact that I’ve won my first Cup race. It’s just so cool, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity that Richard and our owners have given us at Richard Petty Motorsports to go out and to try and be successful.

“To now be able to get them to victory lane, to be in the Chase and to be able to go race for a championship, it is really special, and our race team deserves that.”

Almirola’s win was so unexpected that Petty left the racetrack early to begin his drive back to the Charlotte area. As it turned out, Petty missed all the celebration and the ability to be there in victory lane with his driver and winning team.

Still, Petty put things in perspective in a way that only he can, calling into the media center at Daytona International Speedway to offer his thoughts on Almirola’s feat.

“Well, 30 years ago is history, okay, and today is future, today is today,” Petty said. “So to be able to win the race down there, win it for the Air Force, 4th of July, you know, the whole thing is just great.

“I just feel so good for the crew. They’ve been working; they’re like everybody else, they work hard. They’ve done this deal. We’ve had so many disappointments, and finally it rained on us, but it rained on us at the right time, okay. Overall it was just a great day for us.

“And then Marcos (Ambrose) got in a wreck or two and still wound up 10th. Richard Petty Motorsports had a pretty good day.”

Boy, that’s an understatement if there ever was one.

“But he didn’t give it up,” Almirola said of Petty. “From 1992 until today, he still comes to the racetrack pretty much every weekend. He was here this weekend and decided to go home, so I hate it that you’re not here, Boss.

“But it’s really cool to know all that history and to realize that the 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport’s history. 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.”

For the most part, Richard Petty Motorsports – and before that, Petty Enterprises – had struggled for the most of the last 30 years. But in perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the saying, “Good things come to those who wait,” Petty showed Job-like patience to keep coming back race after race, season after season and decade after decade, hoping for a day like he, his family and organization all experienced Sunday.

“You’ve been around me long enough to know that I don’t never give up on anything, and like I said, might have been 30 years,” Petty said. “(The 43’s last win) was what, ’99?

“If you look back at the history and Petty Enterprises, all the turmoil we’ve been through in the last seven, eight years and all that stuff, I never give up on the thing. So it was one of those deals that I said, okay, if I keep working at it long enough, we’re going to be able to overcome all this.”

But, Petty is also a pragmatist to go along with being a realist. He knows that another 30 years of drought could start next Sunday at New Hampshire (although he’s hoping it won’t, and that Ambrose’s success continues).

“Just winning one race doesn’t overcome it,” Petty said. “Don’t get me wrong. But it puts you in a higher speed track, and you know you can do it. It proves that we can do it, the drivers know we can do it, and I think it’s just going to make it that much easier to go from here.

“Everybody has got to have a start, and I think this will get us started pretty good.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Valiant efforts from Hunter-Reay, Dixon come up just short at Road America

Leave a comment

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon drove about as hard as they possibly could during Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix, and they both drove nearly perfect races.

Hunter-Reay took advantage of Will Power’s engine issues on the start to immediately jump into second, and stalked pole sitter and leader Josef Newgarden from there, often staying within only a couple car lengths of his gearbox.

Dixon, meanwhile, had a tougher chore after qualifying a disappointing 12th. Further, he was starting in the same lane as Will Power, and when Power had engine issues when the green flag waved, Dixon was one of several drivers who was swamped in the aftermath.

Scott Dixon had to come from deep in the field on Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

However, as is his style, he quietly worked his way forward, running sixth after the opening round of pit stops, and then working his way up to third after the second round of stops.

It all meant that, after Lap 30, Newgarden, Hunter-Reay, and Dixon were nose-to-tail at the front, with the latter two in position to challenge for the win.

Yet, neither was able to do so. Hunter-Reay never got close enough to try to pass Newgarden, while Dixon couldn’t do so on either Hunter-Reay or Newgarden. And, neither driver went longer in their final stint – Dixon was actually the first of that group to pit, doing so on Lap 43, with Hunter-Reay and Newgarden pitting together one lap later.

And Newgarden pulled away in the final stint, winning by over three seconds, leaving Hunter-Reay and Dixon to finish second and third.

It was a somewhat bitter pill to swallow, with Hunter-Reay noting that he felt like he had enough to challenge for a win.

“I felt like we had the pace for (Newgarden), especially in the first two stints,” he asserted. “I really felt like it was going to be a really good race between us. Whether it be first, second, third, fourth stint – I didn’t know when it was going to come.”

He added that, if he could do it over again, he would have been more aggressive and tried to pass Newgarden in the opening stint.

“In hindsight, I should have pressured him a bit more in the first stint,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “We were focused on a fuel number at the time. Unfortunately that Penske fuel number comes into play, can’t really go hard.”

Dixon, meanwhile, expressed more disappointment in the result, asserting that qualifying better would have put him in a possibly race-winning position.

“I think had we started a little further up, we could have had a good shot at trying to fight for the win today,” he expressed.

The disappointment for Dixon also stems from the knowledge that his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda had the pace to win, especially longer into a run.

“The car was pretty good on the long stint,” he asserted. “I think for us the saving grace was probably the black tire stint two. We closed a hefty gap there. We were able to save fuel early in the first stint, which enabled us to go a lap longer than everybody, had the overcut for the rest of the race.

“I think speed-wise we were right there. Had a bit of a crack at Hunter-Reay on his out lap on the last stint there, but cooked it too much going into (Turn 14), got a bit loose, lost momentum. That would have been really the only chance of passing him.”

Dixon remains in the championship lead, however, by 45 points, while Hunter-Reay moved up to second, tied with Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi.

Follow@KyleMLavigne