It took to the halfway point of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season but Sunday's Coke Zero 400 winner Aric Almirola was the first driver to exploit NASCAR's new Chase for the Sprint Cup system and earn a shot to compete for the championship over the final 10 races of the season. The new 16-driver Chase Grid will allow all race winners from the first 26 races of the season to compete for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship so long as there are not more than 16 winners and they are in the top 30 in points.
Now with the season through 18 races there are 11 different winners. The 10 prior to Almirola were all drivers who before the season could have been expected to earn their Chase Grid spot by winning. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Kurt Busch are the 10 other drivers sitting pretty right now with at least one win.
When the new Chase system was announced everyone knew there was the possibility of a driver earning one of the 16 places that is not a normal championship contender. With three restictor-plate races and two road course events in the first 26 races there would be at least five opportunities for a Chase spot to be stolen away.
The Daytona 500 passed by with Dale Eanhardt Jr winning, then at Talladega Superspeedway Denny Hamlin won. Carl Edwards was a surprise road course winner at Sonoma Raceway but not a surprise Chase qualifier. Aric Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports took advantage of the fourth opportunity race with the Coke Zero 400 and earned their chance to race for the championship.
Circumstances were pretty crazy on Sunday with rain looming. A first crash collected 16 cars on lap 20 and then on lap 98 a second crash involved 26 cars. Almirola was left to fight it out for the last 56 laps with the 15 or so cars still capable of winning. However, the threat of rain was also in everyone's minds so being out front was important every inch of the way.
On lap 106 Almirola drafted by Kurt Busch with help from Brian Vickers and then kept his famous No. 43 Petty car out front until rain started to fall on lap 109 and the caution was thrown. The cars were parked after lap 112 when heavy rain hit and then NASCAR called the race official once even heavier rain took over the whole track.
It was a special win with the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports returning to victory lane for the first time with that team name and first time since 1999 overall. It was also the 30 year anniversary weekend to when Richard Petty won his 200th race.
Not many people know who Aric Almirola is but now he will run for the championship so get to know him and his background. He is a 30-year-old from Tampa, Florida and is in his third full-time season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He was hired full-time by RPM at the start of the 2012 season. Sunday marked his first Cup win of his career. It was his 125th race.
Almirola's Cup debut came all the way back in 2007 when he was 23. That year he drove six races. One for Joe Gibbs Racing and five for Bobby Ginn's team. In 2008 Almirola drove 12 races for Dale Earnhardt Inc in the No. 8 car and scored his first top 10. The 2009 season saw him race the first seven races in the No. 8 car now under the roof of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Then he only raced once more that season in James Finch's No. 09 car.
Another partial schedule was on the docket for him in 2010 when he drove four races in Finch's Phoenix Racing car early in the season. Then Almirola caught on with Richard Petty Motorsports for the final five races of the season and he scored a fourth place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the No. 9 car.
Almirola did not compete in the Sprint Cup Series in 2011 but did run the full NASCAR Nationwide Series slate for the first time in his career. He drove the No. 88 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports and finished fourth in the points with 18 top 10's. That performance had Richard Petty Motorsports come calling again prior to the 2012 season and they hired Almirola to drive their iconic No. 43 Ford full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
In 2012 he had an average finish of 20th and finished 20th in the points with four top 10's. Then in 2013 him and the team showed minor improvements by having and average finish of 18.8, finishing 18th in points and having six top 10's.
Currently Almirola is 21st in the 2014 standings, well within the top 30 to be eligible for the Chase Grid, and Sunday's win was the fourth top 10 of the season for him.
Almirola, of Cuban decent, first raced on the NASCAR seen back in 2005 when he was 21. In four NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races that season driving for David Dollar he scored two top 10 finishes. He then raced his first full Truck Series schedule in 2006 for Wayne Spears' team and was a Joe Gibbs Racing developmental driver making his first nine Nationwide Series starts of his career. In 2007 raced 18 times in the Nationwide Series. He was credited with his first career NASCAR win at Milwaukee although he was replaced in the car by Denny Hamlin who actually drove the car to victory. That was the beginning of Almirola's end with JGR as he started looking for opportunities elsewhere.
In 2009 Almirola really started to show what he could do when in 16 Truck Series races for Billy Ballew Motorsports he scored seven top five finishes. In 2010 he drove full-time for the team and had a great season. He scored 21 top 10's in 25 races including wins at Dover and Michigan en route to finishing second in the points to Todd Bodine.
All of that culminated on Sunday with Almirola standing in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway with rain falling down on him as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner and a Chase competitor.
Could Richard Petty Motorsports take advantage of the last opportunity race before the Chase at Watkins Glen International? Marcos Ambrose has won at the track two times before and if he makes it three will sow up RPM having two drivers running for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in 2014. That is something no one thought would happen before the year started.Tags: aric almirola, Billy Ballew Motorsports, Camping World Truck Series, Chase for the Sprint Cup, Chase Grid, Coke Zero 400, Dale Earnhardt Inc, Daytona International Speedway, Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports, Motorsports, NASCAR, NASCAR Nationwide Series, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Richard Petty Motorsports