Aric Almirola scores first career Cup win and likely punches his ticket for the Chase
It’s been a long road back for Richard Petty Motorsports.
After a change in ownership, a change in manufacturers and many changes in the driver seat, 30-year-old Aric Almirola carried the venerable No. 43 Petty car back to Victory Lane for the first time since April 1999 at Martinsville - a streak of 545 races without a win.
For Almirola, who scored his first career Sprint Cup victory at his home track of Daytona International Speedway on the 30th anniversary of Petty’s historic 200th win, the experience was simply “amazing”.
“I grew up two hours away from here in Tampa,” Almirola said. “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. I can’t believe I just took the 43 car to victory lane here at Daytona.”
Almirola’s first Cup win came in his 125th career start. With eight races to determine the Chase for the Sprint Cup field and the No. 43 Ford currently 21st in the point standings, Almirola’s win could very likely qualify him for his first play-off appearance.
“Yes, and deservedly so for this race team,” Almirola said. “We have had good cars, top-10 cars. We have been right where we need to be to be competitive but just haven’t gotten to that next level.
“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.”
Unfortunately, Petty missed the celebration. After several days at the track, Petty returned home to North Carolina earlier Sunday morning. When he was asked - via teleconference - about the significance of the 30th anniversary of his Daytona win, the King replied, “Well, 30 years is history and today is the future.”
“Today is today,” Petty added. “So to be able to win the race down there, win it for the Air Force, 4th of July, you know, the whole thing is just great.
“I just feel so good for the crew. They've been working they're like everybody else, they work hard. They've done this deal. We've had so many disappointments, and finally it rained on us, but it rained on us at the right time, okay. Overall it was just a great day for us.”
Although Almirola came on board at RPM in 2010, it was just for the last five races in the No. 9 Ford. The company reorganized at the end of that season with Andy Murstein, of Medallion Financial Corporation, becoming the primary investor in RPM.
In 2011, Marcos Ambrose, who finished 10th on Sunday, joined the fold and posted his first of two wins for the newly formed operation.
But that was just the start. As the King contends, "I don't never give up on anything."
And he didn't. Petty brought back Almirola in 2012, made several crew chief and despite RPM losing half its stable and staff, the two-car operation emerged stronger under general manager Sammy Johns.
"If you look back at the history and Petty Enterprises, all the turmoil we've been through in the last seven, eight years and all that stuff, I never give up on the thing," Petty said. "So it was one of those deals that I said, okay, if I keep working at it long enough, we're going to be able to overcome all this.
"Just winning one race doesn't overcome it. Don't get me wrong. 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, and 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. "
Ironically, Almirola is the 43rd competitor to drive the car. Ever since he took the wheel of the iconic No. 43, he couldn't wait to "get it to Victory Lane.” On Sunday it was clear how proud Almirola is to be an integral part of Petty's resurgence.
"When I came here, Richard Petty Motorsports was on the rebound, if you will, and had been through some turmoil and came out of that, and like Richard just said, he wasn't going to give up on it," Almirola said. "He was going to see it through and get the race team back to where it needed to be to be competitive.
"I was so grateful that they thought that I could be the guy that could contribute to that and could help get the 43 car back to where it needed to be and to get the 43 car back to victory lane more importantly."
At the start of this season, RPM tabbed Petty’s nephew Trent Owens to take over the crew chief’s role. He honed his skills working as an intern during summers at the Petty Enterprises shop in Level Cross, N.C. Owens also enjoyed great success in the Nationwide Series before earning his first Cup win on Sunday.
While Owens was already thinking ahead to the play-offs and trying “to build some momentum for the Chase”, he continued to enjoy the moment.
“Just to be in this garage working is an accomplishment and something you work very hard to try to get an opportunity at," said the 39-year-old from Davidson, N.C. "I'm very thankful for the opportunity I've been given on the 43 car. Obviously being a family member, it's a number that I grew up with. I grew up watching.
"It feels like home to come back. It was a very comforting transition from Nationwide to Sprint Cup with the 43 car, and these guys did a really good job of through the interview process and making sure I made the right decision, and I feel like I have, and I'm enjoying it, and this win will be hard to top probably ever to be honest with you."
Murstein upped his ante and involvement this year which enabled the organization to increase its engineering and testing schedule. He agreed that Almiola’s victory “a great day for RPM”. Murstein didn't mince words when he added that while pundits weren’t likely “expecting the win”, RPM felt it was just a matter of time.
“It’s been a long time coming – 30 years this same weekend since the last win by the King at this very track,” Murstein told Motorsport.com. “This organization is clearly on the upswing and they compete and win with class.
“Now on to the Chase for Aric, and after Marcos wins at Watkins Glen, we will have two cars in the Chase.”
The team has a test scheduled for the road course later this month, where Ambrose already has two career Cup wins. If RPM, an organization that was close to shutting its doors just three years ago, could put two cars in the Chase come September it might just be the comeback story of the year.
"To get this race team to victory lane after all that they've been through and to get this 43 car back to victory lane, that was a challenge that I kind of put out in front of myself and said, okay, if I'm going to go drive that 43 car, I don't want to hear about the last win being John Andretti at Martinsville in 1999," Almirola said. "I want people to remember the last time the 43 car won was whenever we win, and so now going to New Hampshire next week, everybody is going to talk about the last time the 43 car won was Sunday in Daytona."
Note: Murstein confirmed that RPM will remain with Ford beyond this year. Almirola's victory marked the third consecutive win for the Blue Oval - the first time Ford has accomplished that feat in the Cup series since 2005.