Almirola survives rainy, wreck-filled Daytona for first win
Flag to Flag: Really, the title says it all. 30-year-old Floridian Aric Almirola was the lucky guy atop the race standings when Mother Nature let forth her drowning death rain on lap 112 of a scheduled 160, to win the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. It was Almirola's first-career Sprint Cup win. Friday's knockout qualifying really set the tone for the race, as rain ended it in the first round with Front Row Motorsports' David Gilliland (finished 35th) on the pole and joined on the front row by Tommy Baldwin Racing's Reed Sorenson (33rd). Hillman Racing/Circle Sport Racing's Landon Cassill (31st) started 3rd and his teammate Bobby Labonte (26th) 4th, making for the most unlikely of starting top 4's.
A conflagration of stormy weather Saturday evening eventually prompted NASCAR to push the race from that night to 11 a.m. Sunday. As that start time neared, light rain and mist crept onto the Daytona grounds and waved off the start two different times. The race did finally go green and Gilliland and the underdogs stayed near the front and sharing the lead with Matt Kenseth (20th) and Tony Stewart (40th) through the first caution for a small rain shower on lap 7. That brought out a short red flag for track drying in Turn 2. The race restarted on lap 13 and stayed in a frenzied, three-wide gaggle from pretty much 1st to 35th - and that had consequences. As the field was coming to the competition caution scheduled for lap 20, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (41st) got loose and caused Jeff Gordon (12th) to turn him into Stewart. This pretty much blocked the track and caused a 16-car melee, which eliminated many drivers from contention, including Stewart, Stenhouse Jr., Trevor Bayne (38th), Jimmie Johnson (42nd), A.J. Allmendinger (43rd), Kevin Harvick (39th), Carl Edwards (37th), and Kyle Larson (36th). Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (14th), and Brad Keselowski (18th) all got pieces of the wreck and eventually fell a lap down, though Earnhardt Jr. did get the free pass two different times. The race progressed normally for a good while after that, as David Ragan (22nd), Sorenson, Cassill, Greg Biffle (29th), Jamie McMurray (30th), and Kurt Busch (3rd) all took turns leading at different times.
The field settled into a single-file line for a while and then doubled up as pit stops just past the halfway point on lap 80 started to unfold. When the pit sequence ended on lap 89, Busch was up front and would trade the lead several times with Almirola all the way to the end. Danica Patrick (8th) was running in 4th before her pit stop, but misjudged where her pit stall was and had to back into her stall, costing her lots of time under the green flag. Either her spotter or crew chief Tony Gibson chewed her out on the radio for the miscue, which had dropped her to 29th. She said she had counted on Biffle to pit with her and was going to use him as a marker to know when to turn in. Nonetheless, as she got back up to speed, she noticed some metal debris on the backstretch and NASCAR threw a yellow for it on lap 95. This caught her up to the field and got Earnhardt Jr. back on the lead lap. The green fell on lap 98 and Almirola went into the lead ahead of Busch. Behind them, Biffle got a big push from Ragan, which bumped the No. 16 into Kasey Kahne (27th), which turned the No. 5 car in front of most of the field and sparked a 26-car chain-reaction crash. This took all of the underdogs that started near the front from contention. Kyle Busch (28th) had already spun and hit a few cars, but as he came to rest between the banking and the apron, rookie Cole Whitt (34th) nailed him and turned the No. 18 Toyota upside down. Busch sat on his top for about five minutes, as the safety crew waded through the sheet metal wasteland and flipped the car back over with Busch still in it. NASCAR red flagged the race for the 2nd time and finally got the green flag back out on lap 105, with only 16 cars on the lead lap. Ku. Busch led that lap, but Almirola took the race lead back for good and led the next seven laps before the rains came again.
This time the rain was heavy on the backstretch, while the frontstretch and main grandstands stayed dry. As NASCAR worked hard to stay ahead of the moisture with its new Air Titan 2.0 system, Mother Nature had other ideas. Eventually the heavy rain enveloped the whole track and NASCAR decided to call the race just before 3 p.m., handing Almirola the win. The No. 43 went to Victory Lane 30 years after Richard Petty (Almirola's car owner) won his 200th and final race in the same event. Not only was the race Almirola's first Cup win, it was also the first win for car number 43 since John Andretti's Martinsville victory in 1999. At the end of it all, only four or five cars managed to stay completely out of both big crashes and 14 failed to make the finish. The top 10 finishers were Almirola, Brian Vickers, Ku. Busch, Casey Mears, rookie Austin Dillon (best career Cup finish and first top 5), Denny Hamlin, Michael McDowell (best career finish, first top 10 of 2014), Patrick, Clint Bowyer (led some laps, got caught up in the lap 99 crash, recovered), and Marcos Ambrose (got damage in both crashes, but still stayed in lead pack all day). Jeff Gordon got dinged up in both big wrecks, too and still managed 12th and extended his points lead to 27 over Earnhardt Jr. Johnson, whose day ended way early, now is 3rd in the standings and 55 points from the lead, but would lead the Chase standings with his three wins, if the Chase started now. Kenseth (5th in points), Ryan Newman (8th), Paul Menard (10th), Bowyer (12th), and Dillon (13th) would be the drivers who made the Chase without wins. Almirola now has one win and is 21st in points and Ku. Busch still has one win and has moved up one spot to 24th in points. The Coke Zero 400 was fun to watch in some parts, but would have been really interesting if the remaining competitors had a chance to jostle for the win to lap 160. The resiliency of the pit crews to repair the damaged cars after waiting the extra day to race is also a sticking point to remember. Just as plate races often do, this one minted a new winner in the Sprint Cup Series and likely a new Chase contender.
RaceTweet: Almirola gets first win ahead of major rain and major wrecks. Fitting that Almirola's win in the 43 was on Barney Hall's last day in the MRN booth. Cheers to both!
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kurt Busch - Not that Almirola didn't deserve the win (led twice, for 14 laps), but Busch was the fastest of the major team cars that remained in the race. He by far led the most laps at 36 and drove from a 40th starting spot, through a minefield of wrecks, and stayed at or near the front most of the day. Busch has had awful luck this season and still has never won a points race at a plate track, so this has to be a shot in the arm for the No. 41 team, even though they only managed to finish 3rd.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson - Johnson swept both Daytona races in 2013, but was very quiet in both this year. After placing 5th in the Daytona 500, Johnson quickly worked into the top 5 in this race, only to get taken out in the lap 20 wreck. He never returned to the race, but considering the No. 48 team's luck most other races this year, they could afford a bad finish this time.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Most of them - This award gets split a bunch of ways this week. David Gilliland was on the front row with Reed Sorenson, with Landon Cassill and Bobby Labonte behind them and David Ragan starting 8th. They all were able to hang near the front and most led some laps, but all got taken out in the same wreck on lap 99. This left Casey Mears to finish 4th, Michael McDowell in 7th, and even Texas Terry Labonte to place 11th in his final Daytona start. Rookie Alex Bowman also notched 13th, easily his best career finish in the BK Racing No. 23. The Nationwide Series also saw Georgian Ryan Sieg finish 3rd (more on that later), Jeremy Clements 8th, and Mike Wallace 10th - all in underfunded cars. Plate races till the dirt and let some of the underground drivers and teams get some sunshine.
Ghost Driver: Brian Vickers - Seriously, where did he come from to finish 2nd? He avoided the wrecks and got is 3rd top 5 of the season. He also sits 16th in points and only 10 behind Austin Dillon for 13th, the lowest position above the Chase cutoff that is winless.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Denny Hamlin - He got roughed up in both "Big Ones" and still placed clawed back up to 6th. Hamlin also started in the hole from the 37th spot. If one had to pick a team in need of a pick-me-up, Hamlin's isn't a bad one to start with. 14th in points isn't where they want to be, but at least they salvaged a good run in a tough race this week.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Infield grass - I'm tired of awarding these to NASCAR as a governing body, so I just want to give the award to infield grass. Pretty as it is, grass in the infield is a pain for the Gen-6 racecars - especially after rain storms. Really, ever since NASCAR implemented the splitter on the Cars of Tomorrow in 2007, grass has suddenly become even more dangerous and damage-invoking. Take Kevin Harvick - he had the race's first crash avoided, but took to the grass and destroyed the front end of the No. 4 Chevy. We see drivers get way more damage in the grass from a harmless spin almost every week. Read Marty Smith's article about SAFER barriers and safety from this week - grass is mentioned as a dangerous thing for drivers to encounter. We've also seen cars hit the grass and flip, such as Ryan Newman in the 2003 Daytona 500. Tracks may have to front the money in the short term grass paved, but they'll save money in the long run by not having to mow it and drivers will have a safer, more car-friendly place to wreck. Give it some thought at least.
Georgia On My Mind: The Daytona races were not a total upper for the Georgia gang, but they did get Peach State drivers not named Chase Elliott more time in the media than any other race this season. Ryan Sieg, whose only top 10 in the Nationwide Series came at Daytona in February, pushed Kasey Kahne to the win in Friday's Nationwide Series race, scoring his highest-career NASCAR finish of 3rd. This meant he got to address the media in the media center after the race for the very first time and he got many shoutouts on Twitter, though people kept tagging his incorrect handle (It's @RyanSiegRacing, not @RyanSieg. The latter hasn't been used since 2011). Sieg and his RSS Racing team don't seek media attention at all and have little to show for their several years in the Camping World Truck Series and NNS. At least Friday gave them a chance to shine and get some notice (though ESPN interviewed him tape-delayed after several other drivers). Chase Elliott ran as high as 2nd in that race and thought his night was in jeopardy when he lost first gear. Instead, he ran out of fuel on the 2nd-to-last restart and triggered a crash that wrecked fellow Georgian David Ragan (finished 23rd in the No. 98 Biagi-DenBeste Ford) and points standings foe Elliott Sadler (21st). Elliott had to pit and restarted 23rd, climbing to only 20th at the end. Elliott is 3rd in points behind Sadler in 2nd and teammate and standings leader Regan Smith, whom Elliott trails by 15. John Wes Townley finished 18th as part of his limited schedule for Athenian Motorsports in car 25. The Sprint Cup race saw Reed Sorenson (2nd) and David Ragan (8th) start near the front and run at or near that point for a while. This was the first time two Georgia drivers started in the top 10 since the 2010 Ford 400, when Ragan started 9th and BIll Elliott 4th. After the halfway point, both drivers found themselves around 20th, but Ragan actually worked back toward the front, led a couple of laps, and was pushing Greg Biffle when they ran out of room and into Kasey Kahne, triggering the 26-car crash on lap 99. Ragan finished 22nd and Sorenson, who also got taken out in that mess, 33rd. Both had good races and capitalized on their starting position, in a rare chance to run up front. Bad luck bit them both. Good luck, however, came for Georgia in the Winchester ARCA Series race. 17-year-old Atlantan Brandon Jones won the race in his ARCA debut, when he deployed the bump-and-run on Mason Mitchell on the last lap. Jones rain in the top 5 most of the day and learned to save his tires from pole-sitter and esteemed veteran Ken Schrader. John Wes Townley finished 8th and Suwanee's Anderson Bowen crashed and retired on lap 4, placing 20th. Cumming's Jami Weimer sought to make her ARCA debut, but failed to start the race in the Carter 2 Motorsports Dodge because of motor issues.
NNS RaceTweet: A Cup driver wins again, but no one's upset b/c it was Kahne's first NNS win since 2007. Ryan Sieg? Who's that? He's 3RD?
Next: Back to reality. The Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series make their first 2014 trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and can be heard on PRN.