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When it finally came down to the wire, Sunday's Coke Zero 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway was virtually a matter of last man still standing when the storm clouds rolled in to call time early on a race that had already been rolled over from the previous day because of inclement weather.
It turned out that the lucky man in the right place at the right time after two huge wrecks had wiped out many of the expected leading contenders proved to be Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola, who for the first time in his 125-race long Cup career was bound for an admittedly soggy victory lane to celebrate with his crew.
"I grew up two hours away from here in Tampa and I grew up in those stands watching Daytona 500s and Firecracker 400s and grew up dreaming about what it would be like to win here," he said. "I can't believe I just took the #43 car to victory lane here at Daytona. This is amazing!
"We have been right where we need to be to be competitive but just haven't gotten to that next level," he added. "This is so cool to get this team and all these guys behind me that have been working on this race team for a long time and haven't gotten to victory lane with the #43 car, this is so special."
As a not-insubstantial side effect of his win, Almirola now looks set to make the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship that gets underway in September: "Yes, and deservedly so for this race team," he beamed. "Now we're going to be a part of that, to have the opportunity, not only to take [our sponsors] to Victory Lane, but to have that added exposure of the Chase."
The race had been under threat right from the weather right from the beginning, when sprinkles of rain arrived just as NASCAR was trying to get the race underway at its new time of 11am local time after being completely washed out on Saturday night. Surprise pole winner David Gilliland led the first few laps, but Matt Kenseth had just gone to the front when the rain picked up again and the cars were recalled to pit lane under a red flag that lasted nearly half an hour before the elements relented and allowed the drivers to come out and play again.
The rain radar was full of weather systems that seemed poised ready to strike at any moment, but fortune at last smiled on NASCAR fans and for the next couple of hours the rain managed to slide past the superspeedway and allow the race to go on. Even so, everyone was looking over their shoulder wondering when the inevitable would happen, especially once the halfway point of the 160-lap event was passed which meant that the race could be 'called' at the next flag without the need to come back and complete the race another day.
Now there was just the small matter of two almighty wrecks to survive.
The first came on lap 20 just before the planned competition caution to check for tyre wear after the overnight rain. Almost half the field was caught up in it - including many of the drivers who had been favourites to win the race such as Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and AJ Allmendinger. Of these only Johnson and Allmendinger were out on the spot, while others including Stewart, Harvick, Larson and Edwards spent lengthy spells behind the wall before being able to rejoin the race. Some got away with less severe damage and were able to continue, including the #88 which spent the rest of the day held together by a prayer and industrial quantities of duct tape.
What had caused the conflagration? It had started with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. getting loose, and then getting hit by Gordon which sent him into Stewart to start sending cars spinning at the head of the field which then collected the tightly-packed field running behind them. Stewart certainly had no doubt where the blame lay for the mayhem.
"The #17 car got sideways on the lap that we're all getting a competition caution," he said, firmly pointing the finger at Stenhouse. "I guess Ricky thought it paid something to get to lap 20 ... Just Stenhouse being an idiot. It didn't make much sense when we're coming to the caution, we're like a quarter of a lap from getting to the caution and he does something stupid. It tore up a lot of people's cars and a lot of people's days."
"It looked like the #17 got squirrelly up there and then they all started wrecking," agreed Stewart's team mate Kevin Harvick. "I had the wreck cleared but unfortunately with the splitters and everything out in front, the grass is what tears all the cars up."
Stenhouse refused to accept the blame, however: "We had the outside lane working there and it seemed like some of the guys were struggling on the bottom and the middle and we got a little loose on the top. I save it and everything was good and then all of a sudden we got hit in the left rear."
The last word on the matter went to Jeff Gordon, who subsequently posted on Twitter: "Wow what a crazy race ... I'll take the blame and apologize to all involved for 1st wreck," admitting that he'd been the one to get into the back of the recovering Stenhouse to precipitate the chaos.
Whoever had started it, the wreck certainly shook up the field: David Ragan had the lead for the restart and then Reed Sorenson and Landon Cassill served brief spells in the front as the drafting edge waxed and waned, before Jamie McMurray had a decent spell on point that took the race through a debris caution on lap 41 and an ensuring round of pit stops as rain once again flirted with making its presence felt around the 2.5-mile circuit.
Greg Biffle surged to the lead on lap 52, but he was unable to repulse the inexorable progress of Kurt Busch who took over command of the race on lap 60. He would go on to lead for a race-high 36 laps, not bad going given that he'd started from 41st position after getting badly caught out in that bizarre rain-hit qualifying session on Friday afternoon. Busch was still out on front on lap 80 when the race reached its halfway mark, and now that the race was 'official' the tension ramped up, since the next rain delay could end up being the end of the race. Being out in front when that happened was crucial.
As if to underline that, a brief light shower passed over the track just as the field was about to come down pit road: should they wait and see what happened, just in case? This time the rain melted away and the race was unaffected, so everyone had their chance to pit before running out of gas - although in Danica Patrick's case it was a nightmare as she overshot her pit stall and dropped from eighth to 30th position as a consequence at just the wrong point in the race.
A debris caution on lap 95 allowed Patrick to catch up with the pack and regain the draft she'd lost. With one eye on the increasingly ominous clouds the leaders opted to maintain track position and stayed off pit road this time, Brian Vickers in tenth place being the first to come down pit road in the hopes that fresh rubber might be key at the next restart. Busch led the field to the green flag followed by Almirola, and they were safely away at the front when carnage broke out behind them for the second time of the day as Greg Biffle went into the back of Kasey Kahne and sent the #5 flying.
"I was about sixth or so and I was getting hit from behind and I just started spinning. It's kind of a tough spot to be in there because everybody is trying to get going and I just got hit, started going left to right and spun around," Kahne said. "I'm not exactly sure what went on there or how it all happened other than I was hit and started spinning. Then everybody else was wrecking with me."
"From my seat I didn't see anything [but] Kasey came over and said that maybe Greg bumped him a couple times and got him squirrelly and he said he couldn't catch it," said McMurray, who was also caught up in the wreck. "When you have a car spin out at the front of the field, there is just nowhere to go. I ran into the guy who was directly in front of me and the guy behind me clobbered me."
This time, 26 cars were reported as being in someway involved in the backstretch collision with a large number of them torn up and unable to continue, including Kyle Busch whose #18 car was rolled upside down by slow speed contact from Cole Whitt. Busch opted to remain in the car until it was righted by the safety team, but he was quick to reassure his team over the radio that he was fine and "just hanging around" - literally.
"You're in a seven-point harness so things are all good," he explained afterwards. "You just sit there upside down basically in your restraints. Your chest is held, your abdomen is held and everything is held and you just wait for them to come in there and get you and turn you over, because it's way safer to get turned over in that seat because you already got turned over once than it is to try to undo the belts and bang your head off the ceiling and try to get out.
The #18 was too torn up by running across the grass to be continued, so once the car was rightside-up Busch exited and headed for the hauler, as did Kahne, McMurray, Biffle, Whitt, Cassill, Sorenson, Gilliland, Michael Annett, Bobby Labonte and Ryan Truex. A five minute red flag was needed for the clean-up and all the while the storm clouds were once again massing overhead, which made control of the lead position of paramount importance as the race could be stopped at any moment.
Almirola led the field to the green flag for the restart on lap 104 with only 16 cars now left on the lead lap, several of those left running in compromised condition by one of other of the two huge wrecks. As reports of rain drops came in from spotters at turn 3, Kurt Busch did everything he could to get his nose back in front but was ultimately unable to do so, slipping back to third behind Vickers just before the yellow flags were out again - and this time, it really was for rain.
Initially there were hopes that this new shower would just miss the track, but slowly the backstretch got wetter and wetter even as pit lane remained bone dry. Then the shower really bedded itself in and inexorably moved across the whole circuit, and finally at just before 2pm it was clear the entire track was soaked. Even with the revolutionary Air Titans it would now take over two hours to dry, when and if the rain stopped. NASCAR officials decided that enough was enough and called it a day - much to Brian Vickers' annoyance.
"Knowing that we weren't even supposed to start the race last night until 7pm, I was shocked that we called it at two-something in the afternoon," he grumbled. "I know a lot of the fans tuned into the TV and stuck around at the racetrack waiting to see a finish, and I was expecting them to wait a little bit longer knowing that we have lights here and it was going to be a night race anyway."
"It's a tough pill to swallow," agreed Kurt Busch. "We want to go back out there and race. There is still plenty of daylight left. There are lights at this track. I'm disappointed because we want to go for the win."
So why did the officials make the call so early? "We looked at forecasts and the potential of a few more hours of rain, we decided we were past halfway and just called the race," responded NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton. "We've had rain for two days. We've seen this weather pattern.
"We felt that it was in the best interest of fans, getting done and going home and competitors being done," he added. "We put on two-and-a-half hours or so of solid racing and when you looked at what was in front of us weather-wise, we felt it was just best for all concerned that the race was concluded."
It turned out that NASCAR's call was the correct one: when the last journalists were packing up and leaving the deserted speedway at 7pm the rain was still coming down so there was no question that Almirola was the rightful winner of the race, making it the first time the car has won a Cup race since John Andretti drove it to victory at Martinsville in 1999.
Vickers claimed second ahead of Kurt Busch, whose car was subsequently impounded by NASCAR after a possible infringement with a split track bar was discovered after the race. Casey Mears, Austin Dillon, and Denny Hamlin filled out the rest of the top six, while Danica Patrick was able to rebound from her pit stop mishap to claim eighth place just behind Michael McDowell.
With so many of the leading cars hit by accidents at Daytona the standings at the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship remain broadly static, with Jeff Gordon now leading by 27 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr. who is in turn one ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings