Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 18 – Almirola, Allmendinger make Chase with upset wins

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MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December. We kicked things off Thursday with No. 20, the announcement that the Nationwide Series will be renamed and rebranded the Xfinity Series starting in 2015. And on Friday, we looked at No. 19, the 2015 Induction Class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Today, we’re at No. 18, the upset regular season wins from Aric Almirola and A.J. Allmendinger that helped them make their first appearances in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

As part of the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format, any regular season win automatically means a berth in NASCAR’s post-season run to the championship.

Almost immediately after the format’s debut, the three regular season restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega, plus the two road course events at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, were grouped together as “wild card” events that could yield a Chase surprise.

As it turned out in 2014, we got two of them. The soggy Coke Zero 400 weekend at Daytona ended with Aric Almirola victorious after rain cut the race short with 48 laps to go. Later in the summer at the Glen, A.J. Allmendinger out-hustled Marcos Ambrose for the win in a frenetic finish.

Almirola’s triumph put Richard Petty Motorsports into the Chase and the fabled Petty No. 43 into Victory Lane for the first time since 1999. It was clear that being able to break such a long drought meant a lot to Almirola.

“In 2012 when I came here, Richard Petty Motorsports was on the rebound, if you will, and had been through some turmoil and came out of that…[Richard] wasn’t going to give up on it,” he said. “He was going to see it through and get the race team back to where it needed to be to be competitive.

“I was so grateful that they thought that I could be the guy that could contribute to that and could help get the 43 car back to where it needed to be – and to get the 43 car back to Victory Lane, more importantly.”

As for Allmendinger, his maiden Cup victory was also the first for his single-car JTG Daugherty Racing team.

Additionally, it was the end of a long road back for Allmendinger that began after he lost his ride with Team Penske following a failed drug test in 2012.

That road took him through part-time gigs in Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series, and the Verizon IndyCar Series before he signed for a full-time Cup return in 2014 with JTG Daugherty.

“I learn every day,” Allmendinger said after his win. “I try to get better every day. I’m sure they’ll attest to you, there’s certain days it’s not good [and] I’m still not where I want to be. There’s other days that I’m happy and I’m where I want to be.

“But I wouldn’t go back and change the process because I know I am a happier person and I am a more centered person, and I know I need to keep working to get better at that still. But I’m surrounded by family, and to be able to share it together, we’ll never forget this. I wouldn’t change anything about this.”

Almirola and Allmendinger would be among the first four eliminated in the Chase during the Challenger Round, with the latter coming just two points shy of advancing to the Contender Round.

But despite their early exits, the fact that they were both able to simply make the post-season has to be considered a special accomplishment for them and their respective teams.

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

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If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing at Barber

SPOTTER GUIDE: All 29 of this weekend’s paint schemes

IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”