NASCAR Daytona 2014 recap: Breakthrough win for Aric Almirola, Richard Petty No. 43 team

Chris Trotman

It’s been some time, but the No. 43 car is back in Victory Lane at Daytona.

Since January, when NASCAR stressed the importance of winning and de-emphasized the concept of points racing, the shift has been hashed, rehashed and scrutinized. It seemed as though at some raceway -- but most likely at either Daytona or Talladega -- an out-of-nowhere winner would emerge and secure themselves a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Yet through 17 weeks, it was the familiar names like Johnson, Harvick, Earnhardt, Edwards and Keselowski that continued to assert their superiority. Not once had a potential playoff underdog emerged to earn an invite to a party that would otherwise be filled with drivers from the mega teams of Hendrick, Gibbs, Penske, Stewart-Haas and Roush.

"We've had so many disappointments. And finally it rained on us, but it rained on us at the right time." -Richard Petty

Then came the annual Fourth of July weekend stop at Daytona, where the fireworks didn't just happen outside the speedway.

Two crashes involving 16 and 26 cars, respectively, decimated the field. Thunderstorms forced NASCAR to end Sunday's race 48 laps before its scheduled distance. And when it was all said and done a surprise first-time winner was standing in Victory Lane; his Chase ticket punched.

NASCAR's newest Cinderella is Aric Almirola, a 30-year-old driver for Richard Petty Motorsports.

The win was the first for the Petty No. 43 car since 1999, and that it came at Daytona in July made it all the more special. It was in this race 30 years ago where Petty won his 200th and final premier series victory with President Ronald Reagan in attendance.

"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."

Since then success has been mostly fleeting for the No. 43 team, with far more downs than ups. Petty retired in 1992 with much fanfare though little on-track production. The years that followed saw a host of journeymen drivers attempt to fill the seat with almost all failing.

But Almirola brought promise and potential when he joined RPM in 2012, and Sunday that shone through.

While some may decry Sunday's outcome as fluky, the evidence says otherwise. Almirola was one of just six who escaped being involved in of the two wrecks that marred the Coke Zero 400. Like everyone, he was aware of the increasing risk of rain that could strike at any moment.

To his credit, Almirola simply put himself in the most advantageous position possible to capitalize if lightning -- figuratively and literally -- struck.

"We've had so many disappointments," Petty said. "And finally it rained on us, but it rained on us at the right time."

Although Almirola may be a decided long shot to win the championship, he does have a chance. What this means long-term for RPM is less clear. One win doesn't change the complexion of an organization that still lacks resources, funding and the depth of NASCAR's powerhouse teams.

The hope is for more days like Sunday. Because as Daytona showed, anything is possible as sometimes lighting does in fact strike twice.

"Just winning one race doesn't overcome it," Petty said. "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. 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."

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