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.

Starting lineup grid for IMSA Petit Le Mans: Tom Blomqvist puts MSR on pole position

Petit Le Mans lineup
IMSA
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IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship contender Tom Blomqvist put the Meyer Shank Racing Acura at the front of the starting lineup for the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Road Atlanta.

Blomqvist turned a 1-minute, 8.55-second lap on the 2.54-mile circuit Friday to capture his third pole position for MSR this season. Earl Bamber qualified second in the No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ricky Taylor was third in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which enters Saturday’s season finale with a 19-point lead over the No. 60 of Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis (who will be joined by Helio Castroneves) for the 10-hour race.

PETIT LE MANS STARTING GRID: Click here for the starting lineup l Lineup by car number

PETIT LE MANS: Info on how to watch

With the pole, MSR sliced the deficit to 14 points behind WTR, which will field the trio of Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Brendon Hartley in Saturday’s race.

“We really needed to put the car in this kind of position,” Blomqvist said. “It makes our life a little less stressful tomorrow. It would have given the No. 10 a bit more breathing space. It’s going to be a proper dogfight tomorrow. The guys gave me such a great car. It’s been fantastic this week so far, and it really came alive. I’m hugely thankful to the boys and girls at MSR for giving me the wagon today to execute my job.

“That was a big effort from me. I knew how important it was. It’s just awesome for the guys to give them some sort of reward as well. It’s always nice to be quick. If you do the pole, you know you’ve got a quick car.”

Though WTR has a series-leading four victories with the No. 10, MSR won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and has five runner-up finishes along with its three poles.

The strong performances of the ARX-05s ensure that an Acura will win the final championship in IMSA’s premier Daytona Prototype international (DPi) division, which is being rebranded as Grand Touring Prototype in the move to LMDh cars next season.

Taylor qualified third despite sliding into the Turn 5 gravel during the closing minutes of qualifying while pushing to gain points.

“Qualifying was important for points,” Taylor said. “Going into it, if we outqualified the No. 60 Meyer Shank Acura, they had a lot to lose in terms of championship points. So, we were trying to increase the gap over 20 points which would’ve made a big difference for tomorrow. We would have loved to get the pole and qualify ahead of the No. 60, but in the scheme of the points, it didn’t change a whole lot. I’m feeling good since it’s such a long race, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura team does such a good job strategizing and putting us in a good position.

“I’m very confident in our lineup and our team compared to them over the course of 10 hours. I’d put my two teammates up against those guys any day. I think we are all feeling optimistic and strong for tomorrow.”

In other divisions, PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports (LMP2), Riley Motorsports (LMP3), VasserSullivan (GTD Pro) and Paul Miller Racing (GTD) captured pole positions.

The broadcast of the 10-hour race will begin Saturday at 12:10 p.m. ET on NBC, moving at 3 p.m. to USA Network.


QUALIFYING

Results

Results by class

Fastest lap by driver

Fastest lap by driver after qualifying

Fastest lap by driver and class after qualifying

Fastest lap sequence in qualifying

Best sector times in qualifying

Time cards in qualifying

PRACTICE RESULTS: Session I l Session II l Session III