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Chase intrigue kicked up with Almirola's win

July 08, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Chase intrigue kicked up with Almirola's win
Cain: New format gives spark to suddenly strong Richard Petty Motorsports

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You could understand if in the midst of celebrating his first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at his home track Daytona International Speedway on the historic 30th anniversary of his team owner Richard Petty's 200th and final win, Florida native Aric Almirola felt as if all the stars aligned and all was right in his world.

Even better, all will continue being right in his world.

Almirola's maiden trip to Victory Lane also comes with a likely ticket to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- another first for him, and a swift kick in the pants for the sport's perennial "contenders" who still shockingly haven't secured their postseason berth with only eight races remaining to set the 16-driver Chase field.

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The victory not only gives Almirola some awesome hardware for the living room mantle, it changes the way his team approaches the rest of the season and it also changes the look of the postseason.

Three days ago Almirola didn't have a Sprint Cup win to his name. Today he can expect to race against the likes of six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch for a championship.

It's something that more typical front-runners such as Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart surprisingly can't claim quite yet.

It's exactly the kind of opportunity and drama NASCAR's new win-and-you're-in Chase format hoped to provide, and has provided with this outcome Sunday.

A dose of underdog among the champs and favorites is good for the fans, good for the teams and good for the sport financially.

"Everybody asks what's your thoughts on the new Chase format, and I've said from the very beginning that I thought that it's a really good thing because it gives four more teams an opportunity to go race for a championship," Almirola said Sunday. "It gives four more teams' sponsors more exposure, and now we're going to be a part of that. Our sponsors, U.S. Air Force and Smithfield Foods and all the brands that they have and STP and GoBowling.com, all those people put in a lot of money to sponsor our race car, and so now to have the opportunity not only to take them to Victory Lane, but to be able to go and race for a championship and get that added exposure ... everybody knows that if you're not in the Chase during those 10 weeks, you don't even get talked about unless you're winning a race.

"It is really cool to be able to give back to those people because they were the ones that took a chance on me, took a chance on our race team, and put up a lot of money to take a chance on us being successful."

He added with as smile, "We were just talking in Victory Lane, we've been fretting over the fact that, man, if we wouldn't have wrecked here and if we wouldn't have wrecked here and if we wouldn't have wrecked here and we wouldn't have had this happen, we'd probably be like 11th or 12th in points. 

"Well, you can't go back and you can't fix that, but this fixes everything."

And changes a lot.

In fact, with Watkins Glen road course looming on the schedule -- Aug. 10 -- Almirola's Richard Petty Motorsports team suddenly feels as if it could have both cars in the postseason mix. Almirola's teammate Marcos Ambrose has won that race two of the past three years and sat on the pole there last year.

Instead of all the usual mega-team participants such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing monopolizing the championship talk, a smaller, lower-funded team like RPM is now at least in the mix.

"We've got a test scheduled for Watkins Glen right now with both Aric and Marcos, so obviously Marcos will be one of the favorites there, so we're looking forward to getting there and testing and seeing if we can have both the 9 and the 43 in the Chase," RPM Competition Director Sammy Johns said. "That would be so awesome."

During the winner's news conference Sunday, Johns credited much of the team's success Sunday and potential for more ahead to its backers increasing the testing budget.

"They came to me and said what do we need to do to be better," Johns said. "We've tested more this year than we've ever tested as an organization, and Richard," Johns said to Petty who was on the speaker phone, "I'm going to be hitting you up for some more."

Petty laughed and replied, "If you keep doing this, you'll get it, OK?"

And while the room erupted in laughter, the truth is, it's a happy-but-sober situation. Almirola's win should equal the first playoff berth for the team since Kahne's 10th-place championship finish in 2009.

"Our mindset when the season started was it was all about wins, and then we started to gain some points and then we had to start paying attention to points," explained Almirola's crew chief Trent Owens. "I'm sure we're not (one) of the figured ones that's going to win a race. ... I think if we continue to focus on just gaining as much points as we can, our best thing to do is try to build momentum going into the Chase and try to have a hot hand going in because that's really what it's about, no different than your basketball tournaments and stuff. 

"Whoever gets the hot hand going in gets it all the way to the end, and that's what we've got to do."

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