Aric Almirola puts 43 in Victory Lane

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Thirty years and two days after Richard Petty drove No. 43 to his 200th Cup win here, Aric Almirola drove the 43 to his first.

"Thirty years ago is yesterday," Petty said. "Today is future. It begins today."

For an old writer who was here for that 200th win and here for this first, one who has seen Petty weather three lean decades in between, there was one natural question:

Were there times when the King wondered if the fabled 43 would ever be back in Victory Lane?

"You've been around me long enough to know that I don't ever give up on anything," Petty said by teleconference; he'd already left the track by the time the race was called for rain. "Guess the last time we won a race [with the 43] was, what? '99?

"If you look back at the history of Petty Enterprises [now Richard Petty Motorsports], all the turmoil we've been through the last seven or eight years and all that stuff, I never gave up on the thing.

"It was one of those deals where I said, 'OK, if I keep working at it long enough, we're gonna overcome all this.'"

Work long enough? Petty turned 77 last week. How's that for American work ethic to top off a Fourth of July weekend?

"Just winning one race doesn't overcome it, don't get me wrong," Petty said. "But it puts you on a higher-speed track. And you know you can do it."

Now, at RPM, "The crew knows they can do it; the drivers know we can do it," he said. "And so I think it's just gonna make it that much easier for us to go from here.

"Everybody's got to have a start," said the man who came here first in 1959, when Daytona International Speedway opened. "And I think this'll get us started pretty good."

Actually, the 43 sat still on pit road as Almirola was declared the winner after 112 of a scheduled 160 laps about 3 p.m. ET, after intermittent rain had turned into hopeless downpour. But Almirola had to drive it past Kurt Busch to take the lead and hold off Brian Vickers before the showers started and the deluge came.

"Thirty years to the weekend since Richard Petty won his 200th is really special," Almirola said. "But I was more worried about getting my first."

Since Almirola signed on with RPM in 2012, he has seen "everybody trying to get better and trying to build this race team back to a winning race team, the way it deserves to be," Almirola said.

And now, "We're gonna be in the Chase!" Almirola gushed, referring to NASCAR's new win-and-you're-in format. "This race team deserves to be in the Chase."

Petty is back in the championship hunt for the first time since he won his seventh and last one, as a driver, in 1979.

And Almirola's confidence came beaming through: "I told everyone at the beginning of this year, our sponsors and everybody who was committing to our race team, I said, 'I promise you I will give you a Victory Lane.' And lo and behold, we've done it."

The competition was culled horrifically by a big one and a bigger one, two massive pileups of 16 and 26 cars, respectively, although several were able to continue.

Rain, wrecks, whatever, wins are wins -- Petty knew that as well as anyone -- and "I'll take 'em any way we can get 'em," Almirola said.

Vickers wound up second and Busch third, and both questioned calling the race so soon, considering the lights here. But neither was adamant, and both were gracious.

"I was hoping they would wait it out," Vickers said. "We've got lights, it's Daytona, and it's only 2 o'clock [when the deluge got bad], but I guess they felt they needed to call it. So it is what it is."

"It seems early to call a race," said Busch, who had pretty well dominated, leading the most laps, before Almirola took the lead. But, "It is Sunday and our fans that showed up here were going to use this day to travel back home."

Bottom line, Busch said nobly, "I didn't do my job to be the leader" when the rain was imminent.

Where the Daytona 500 crowd each February comes from all over North America, the summer race draws mostly locals from Florida.

Take, for example, a kid named Aric Almirola, who used to come here via Interstate 4 with his family to watch races.

"This is my home racetrack, two hours away from Tampa," Almirola said. "I grew up sitting in those grandstands, right up there, watching Daytona 500s and Firecracker 400s, and dreamed about what it would be like to race here.

"And, man, I just put the 43 car in Victory Lane at Daytona."

The last time 43 was there, owned by the Petty family, was 1981, for Petty's seventh and last Daytona 500 win. His 1984 win in the 400 here was for car owner Mike Curb.

RPM had won four races since 2009, two each with Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose, but those were all in cars numbered 9.

Now the 43 is back. And Richard Petty, at 77, has a great sense of beginning again.