Just like real Coke Zero, the Coke Zero 400 was a watered-down version of the original: truncated by rain and short by 120 miles. Aric Almirola earned his first career win Sunday while standing on two feet, outside his car, as the rain whipped across Daytona International Speedway.
There may be no better headline, no snappier headline, than what NASCAR.com posted when Sunday's Coke Zero 280 ended in a deluge: King for a Day.
Almirola was the default winner of the race, but the No. 43 car he drives—once famously driven by Richard "The King" Petty—shared the spotlight with him in Victory Lane. This weekend commemorated the 30th anniversary of Petty winning his 200th and final race.
The 30-year-old was leading when the red flag came out for rain and thus became the winner when the race was declared official. As a result, he earned his first Sprint Cup victory and all but assured himself a spot in the Chase.
"The 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport's history," Almirola said, via the Associated Press (h/t USA Today). "And to have that opportunity to drive that race car has been really special from the day that I stepped foot in it. All I wanted to do from the very first time I drove it was get it to Victory Lane. It took two and a half years I guess, but I finally did it."
Following Almirola's win, Jimmie Johnson was one of the drivers to pass along congratulations:
Right on @aric_almirola!!!— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) July 6, 2014
However, not everyone may be as thrilled as Johnson by Almirola's win, and subsequent entry into the Chase. But then again, drivers already in the Chase could favor going against him than, say, a Tony Stewart or a Clint Bowyer or a Matt Kenseth—drivers who would likely have a stronger chance at winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Some people will complain that Almirola doesn't deserve a spot in the Chase because of the way he won. But all arguments stop there: He won. It doesn't matter how he won.
The frustration may stem from Almirola’s overall performance in 2014, as he has an average finish of 19.2. He finished 39th in the Daytona 500 and 13th (respectable) at Talladega, the other restrictor-plate race on the circuit.
Forty-three cars started, and 29 were running at the end. Among those 29 was Almirola, a driver who has just four top-fives in 125 races. His first win came on a day where two big wrecks wiped out many of racing’s heavy hitters.
The first took place on Lap 20, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr., aided by Jeff Gordon, ended the days of Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Johnson.
Following the wreck, Stewart said of Stenhouse, “I love him like a little brother, but he scares me sometimes.”
Later, Gordon took the blame for the wreck:
Still standing, still clean, was Almirola.
USA Today's Jeff Gluck had this to say following the race:
You knew this was a possibility when #NASCAR made new system: A guy making the Chase thanks to a rain-shortened race. Almirola is in.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) July 6, 2014
Essentially what he’s saying is this: “Don’t complain if a driver like Almirola qualifies for the Chase, because, well, this is the system we have now.”
What’s so wrong with Almirola being dubbed the winner? At least it wasn’t a tie. At least it didn’t go to penalty kicks. These are the rules and this is just one of the quirks that comes with racing in Central Florida in the summer. Almirola kept his nose clean in a race that saw two apocalyptic wrecks.
He was one of seven cars not affected by either of the crashes.
Here’s the deal: Almirola and his team put him in the position to win by virtue of skill and, more importantly, luck. When it’s time for big-boy racing in the Chase, we’ll see just how deserving he is.
His win feels unsavory since it ended on a red flag because the race was shortened by weather, but that’s going to happen. This race was already delayed enough. While he’s happy to win the race, he knows as well as anyone that the car should be in motion at the end.
For now, Almirola deserves to savor this win as if he drove all 400 miles with Kenseth, Johnson, Stewart, Gordon and Harvick all in his rearview. And on the scorecard, for all intents and purposes, they were.
As they say in baseball, it’s a line drive in the box score.