DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Anybody have “The Cuban Missile” in their Coke Zero 400 pool?
In a soggy and slushy scrum of stock cars stretching two days, involving plenty of carnage and the brutal inconvenience of dark skies, Aric Almirola can thank the Weather Channel and his United States Air Force Ford for his fortuitous run at Daytona International Speedway.
Almirola won the first race of his Sprint Cup career sitting in the team’s pit box with his crew. It was the best place to be after rain brought out the third red flag Sunday afternoon. Seeing the ominous skies and forecast for the next few hours, NASCAR officials cut their losses after 112 laps of a race scheduled to go 160.
“We were doing a lot of hard-core praying hoping the Good Lord would open the skies up and let it rain,” Almirola said.
No rain, but the threat was good enough. Almirola’s pit crew celebrated with umbrellas over their head and a tarp over the No. 43 Ford, pushing it to Victory Lane so they could join Almirola.
Despite the circumstances, NASCAR commemorated its push for diversity in a big way: Almirola, a Tampa, Fla., native of Cuban descent, won in a car number made famous by icon Richard Petty, who was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his record 200th victory this weekend.
The King and the Cuban Missile. Who knew?
But such are the dynamics of Daytona. The rain and the wrecks took out a total of 14 cars. Two huge restrictor-plate mashups ended the day for veterans Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, and Kyle Busch, among others. The rain wrecked the day for Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch, who were trailing Almirola when NASCAR officials made the call.
“The rain came at wrong time for us and the right time for them,” Vickers said.
But other than drivers who had a shot, who is going to quibble with the King celebrating his milestone victory and 77th birthday weekend with such fireworks, even if they were a bit soggy?
Petty, like a lot of folks, already had left the race track by the time the race was called, but he piped in via a conference call later to put it all into perspective.
“It rained on us, but it rained us at the right time, OK?” Petty said.
Unlike The King, Almirola was never a NASCAR blue-blood. He took a long and winding road to the Cup garage, starting with the days when Sam Rodriguez, his maternal grandfather and owner of an auto-parts store in Tampa, helped finance his ride racing super late-models in 2001 and 2002.
But frustrated at the competitive logjam, Almirola had decided to focus on his schoolwork, studying to be a mechanical engineer at the University of Central Florida.
“I was going crazy,” Almirola recalled.