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Burden of King's car never wore on Almirola

July 07, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Win signifies new era for driver, iconic team owner

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For Aric Almirola, the quest to return the iconic No. 43 car to Victory Lane wasn't about history. It was personal.

"That was a challenge that I kind of put out in front of myself and said, 'OK, 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,' " the Richard Petty Motorsports driver 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."

Indeed they will, after Almirola passed Kurt Busch to take the lead Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, and then held on through an hour-long rain delay before NASCAR called the race official 48 laps short of the scheduled finish. It was the first career victory for the 30-year-old Tampa native, and a huge one at that as race wins now qualify drivers for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

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But it was also so much larger than just one driver, given that the No. 43 car made famous by Petty had not been to Victory Lane since Andretti took it there at Martinsville Speedway in the spring of 1999. Between then and now were some difficult times for the organization that was once NASCAR's most successful -- fabled Petty Enterprises was folded into the entity that ultimately became RPM, and the team was nearly run into bankruptcy by former owner George Gillett.

It all combined to make it seem like much longer than 15 years between visits to Victory Lane. Although Kasey Kahne won twice in a brief tenure in the Petty fold and Almirola's teammate Marcos Ambrose has triumphed two times on road courses, the races and months and seasons continued to stretch on without NASCAR's most iconic vehicle basking in a spray of confetti and champagne.

Some wondered if it ever would, given the depths of which RPM had to climb out. Almirola -- who has two victories from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and is credited with another on the Nationwide tour even though he was replaced by Denny Hamlin mid-race -- never doubted. He not only embraced the challenge, he made it his personal mission to be the driver who ended the No. 43 car's skid.

"In 2012 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," Almirola said. "And Richard … wasn't going to give up on it. 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."

The steps along the way were numerous -- Petty joining with business partners Andrew Murstein and Doug Bergeron to wrest control of the organization away from Gillett, the additions of competition director Sammy Johns and crew chief Trent Owens, a recent increased commitment from primary sponsor Smithfield Foods that allowed RPM to devote more resources to research and development. And then there was Almirola, a regular contender on plate tracks, who Sunday spotted his opportunity and seized it.

"Everybody always asks me, 'Oh, how much pressure is it to drive the King's car?' and all that stuff," Almirola said. "And to be honest with you, there's nobody that can put any more pressure on me than me, because I want to win for myself.  I know this sounds terrible, but it's more about winning so that I can feel a sense of accomplishment more than just winning to give Richard Petty another win. He's won enough races."

Almirola, who often trades playful shots with his car owner, showed off a wide smile. Patched in via a conference call -- although he had been in Daytona for much of the weekend, Petty left before the rain-delayed event, and was home in North Carolina "reading the funny papers and watching the race" -- the King's glee radiated through the phone line. He knew how long it had been since his former car had tasted triumph.

"It was what, '99? 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 gave up on the thing," he said. "So it was one of those deals that I said, 'OK, 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."

Significance enveloped Sunday's outcome like the humidity permeating central Florida. As a kid, Almirola used to journey across the peninsula to Daytona, both to race karts at Municipal Stadium and see races at the big track. Petty's landmark 200th victory, complete with Ronald Reagan in attendance, occurred at Daytona 30 years ago this weekend. The man who called that event over the radio, Barney Hall, was up in the booth Sunday announcing a race for the final time.

And yet Sunday afternoon, Petty had no use for the past. With the No. 43 car at last back in Victory lane, the King was eager to look ahead. "Thirty years ago is history, OK?" he said. "Today is future. Today is today."

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