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Tampa's Aric Almirola wins at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH — Aric Almirola sat atop his pit box at Daytona International Speedway, resting his head on his hands during another rain delay in Sunday's Coke Zero 400.

He had dreamed about winning here as a kid, when he rode down Interstate 4 from his childhood home in Tampa to race at the nearby go-cart track the day after Christmas or sit in the grandstands at NASCAR's famed tri-oval.

He probably didn't envision his life-changing victory coming like this — with his No. 43 Ford parked in the lead as dark clouds swirled, with nothing left to do but keep his head down and pray for more rain.

Not that the 30-year-old Hillsborough High graduate was complaining after the first victory of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career.

"I couldn't have dreamed of a better place to get my first win," Almirola said.

Almirola got that — and a long-awaited victory for legendary car owner Richard Petty — by beating a field led by runnerup Brian Vickers and surviving two days of rain and two huge wrecks in a race limited to 112 of 160 scheduled laps.

The showers started Saturday, postponing the event until Sunday morning, and continued, slightly delaying the green flag and triggering an early 26-minute red-flag delay.

"It's tough on everybody," said Kurt Busch, who finished third and led a race-high 36 laps.

The wrecks made things tougher.

The first big one came just before a scheduled competition caution at Lap 20, when Ricky Stenhouse got loose and triggered a 16-car crash involving the top six drivers in points, including defending race winner Jimmie Johnson and Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. Almirola somehow escaped unscathed.

"The good Lord was just looking out for us in that one," Almirola said.

That was just the beginning.

Almirola led on Lap 98 when the next big wreck happened, as Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne started a 26-car pileup that sent Jamie McMurray airborne and flipped over Kyle Busch.

"It just felt like a slow carnival ride," said Busch, who wasn't injured.

Almirola avoided that wreck, too — one of only six cars in the field not collected in either one — to put himself in position to make the winning move as rain clouds began to roll in.

"I could see how dark it was getting on the backstretch and in Turn 3 …" Almirola said. "I knew it was time to go."

Almirola side-drafted Kurt Busch's No. 41 Chevy after the restart, got a boost from Vickers and sped into the lead on Lap 105. He never looked back, not at the field and not at his car's history.

The victory for Richard Petty Motorsports was the first for the famous No. 43 since John Andretti's Martinsville win in 1999. It also came 30 years and two days after Petty won this event for his 200th career victory, with President Ronald Reagan watching.

"Thirty years ago is history …" Petty said from North Carolina, where he watched while reading the Sunday comics. "Today is the future."

And that future is Almirola, who likely clinched his first ever spot in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship. That's a sign of steady progress in his third full Cup season.

He has matched his 2012 season total with four top-10 finishes, just two fewer than last year. He led five laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 14 Sunday, including the final seven before rain fell again.

During the race's third red flag, Almirola stood outside his parked car before getting lonely and making the long walk down pit road to join his team. Crew chief Trent Owens dangled his leg nervously as dark clouds swirled in and the rain began to fall harder.

Almirola just kept his head down, staring at the floor, until the controversial, race-ending call came over the radio and his team erupted in hugs and cheers.

Then Almirola rose, a winner at Daytona at last, with his childhood dream from Tampa finally come true.

Tampa's Aric Almirola wins at Daytona 07/06/14 [Last modified: Sunday, July 6, 2014 10:59pm]
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