Plenty of rain, wrecks at the racetrack

Opinions differ on shortened Coke Zero 400

BY DAVID SCOTT
CHARLOTTE OBSERVER/MCT

The Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway was called on Sunday, 48 laps short of the scheduled 160-lap distance.(PHOTOS BY DUANE C. FERNANDEZ  SR./HARDNOTTS PHOTOGRAPHY)
The Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway was called on Sunday, 48 laps short of the scheduled 160-lap distance.
(PHOTOS BY DUANE C. FERNANDEZ SR./HARDNOTTS PHOTOGRAPHY)

One thing is certain at the conclusion of a rain-shortened race: The winner thinks it was called at the right time, and those who didn’t win wish it could have continued.

That was the case Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, where Aric Almirola won a Coke Zero 400 that was called on the 112th of scheduled 160 laps when rain settled in around the track.

Aric Almirola signs autographs before the Coke Zero 400 was scheduled to start on Saturday.
Aric Almirola signs autographs before the Coke Zero 400 was scheduled to start on Saturday.

“The rain came at the wrong time for us and the right time for them,” runner-up Brian Vickers said. “It’s unfortunate. I was hoping they would wait it out. We’ve got lights. But I guess they felt the need to call it, so it is what it is.”

The race, which had been postponed from Saturday also because of rain, was red-flagged at about 2 p.m. for the weather, then called off for good at 2:56. The wet weather didn’t let up as the afternoon progressed, so a timely restart for the race would have been unlikely.

It was the second time this season rain played a major role in a race at Daytona: The season-opening Daytona 500 was delayed six hours by wet weather in February, but the entire race was run.

‘Tough call to make’
For drivers, the race-within-the-race was figuring out how hard to compete with rain approaching as the event passed its halfway point (80 laps) and became official.

“It was tough because I thought we were racing to 80 there for a while,” said rookie Austin Dillon, who finished fifth. “It’s tough not knowing if you’re going to get to 160 because you’ve got guys saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to rain out.’ There are so many opinions, so you’ve just got to trust yours when it comes down to the end.”

Almirola passed Kurt Busch for the lead on Lap 106, which turned out to be six laps from the end. Busch had led a race-high 36 laps.

“It seems early to call a race,” Busch said. “It’s Sunday, and the majority of our fans were going to use this day to travel back home. Maybe we could have run later and finished and everybody could have made it back home and to work on Monday.

“It’s a tough call to make. But I didn’t do my job as the leader for when the race was going to get called.”

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Two major accidents
The rain, which played havoc with events all weekend at the track, wasn’t the only story.

The race was interrupted by two major accidents – the first involving 16 cars on Lap 21, the second involving 26 cars on Lap 99.

Pole-winner David Gilliland, a victim of the second big wreck, finished 35th. Points-leader Jeff Gordon, who would have clinched a spot in the Chase with a victory, was 12th.

Almirola stayed away from each of the race’s big wrecks. The first one happened when Gordon forced Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to get loose coming out of Turn 1, causing a huge pileup on the front stretch. The main victim of the wreck was six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, whose day was finished because the damage to his Chevy was too severe to repair.

The second accident was highlighted by Kyle Busch’s Toyota being flipped on its top by Cole Whitt. Busch was OK and joked on the radio to his team that he was “just hanging around” while waiting for track workers to extricate him.

Petty anniversary
And while the victory – the first of his career – earns Almirola a spot in the Chase for the Cup playoffs, his car also earned plenty of post-race attention. Almirola, with Richard Petty Motorsports, drove a No. 43 Ford in the race.

It was the 30th anniversary of Richard Petty’s victory in the 1984 summer race at Daytona in his familiar red-and-blue No. 43 Pontiac, the 200th and final triumph of his driving career that was also witnessed by President Ronald Reagan. Almirola was the drive of Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Ford in last weekend’s Coke Zero 400.

Petty’s final victory in Daytona’s summer race came just months after Almirola, 30, was born in Walton Beach. He and his family often came to Daytona to watch races when he was a child.

“I know all about the history of the car,” said Almirola, who is in his second season of driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. “I’m appreciative of it, that it’s 30 years to the weekend since (Petty) won his 200th race with the president here. But I’m also a little bit selfish. I just won my first Cup race!”

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