Rain was definitely the word for the Coke Zero 400 Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway. It was the return trip to the iconic track after February’s season-opening Daytona 500 and this time Florida’s famous summer weather was supposed to greet both fans and drivers, however it turned out to be anything but one of those Chamber of Commerce type weekends.
The rain played havoc with the entire weekend’s schedule beginning with qualifying when the second and third rounds were cancelled due to rain. The cancellation of the final two rounds set up an unusual front two rows as David Gilliland posted the fastest lap during the one and only round of qualifying, giving Front Row Motorsports its first-ever pole. He was joined by Tommy Baldwin’s Racing’s Reed Sorenson, who has only one finish this season in the top 20. The second row consisted of two drivers not accustomed to starting up front in Landon Cassill and Bobby Labonte.
The race was originally scheduled to take the green flag Saturday night, but Mother Nature didn’t even give track officials time to think about getting the race in as the heavens once again opened up. NASCAR officials, as is their custom, moved the race to the following day but decided to give it an early start time of 11 a.m. as the weather called for afternoon showers.
The green flag did wave Sunday morning and 43 cars hit the high banks racing not only each other but also the weather forecast that made making it to halfway the goal of everyone behind the wheel. The race started like there were only a couple of laps left as several drivers at the head of the pack started making last lap type moves and in the process created the first “big” one on lap 20. A total of 16 cars were involved in that one, but as it turned out the title of “the” big one was reserved for later on in the race.
The dark clouds kept rolling in making it highly improbable that the race would go the advertised distance of 400 miles. It was all about being up front with a chance to make a move for the win when on lap 98 Greg Biffle got into Kasey Kahne and turned him around sideways near the front of a large pack of cars that had been bunched up after a couple of cautions for debris. The result was a 26-car pileup that was more than worthy of being labeled “The Big One” as the carnage was so bad that the red flag came out stopping the race while the track was being cleared.
When the green flag waved to resume racing, drivers looking for their first win of the season made up the bulk of the field running near the front. The rain was drawing closer with every lap until finally the red flag waved for the time in the race for rain on lap 112 with Richard Petty Motorsports’ Aric Almirola in the lead.
Since Almirola drives for Richard Petty, the historical significance of the win was definitely not lost during the rain-soaked celebration. It was the first time that a car owned by Petty had won a Cup race since April 18, 1999 when John Andretti won at Martinsville. It was also the 30th anniversary of Petty’s 200th win that took place with President Ronald Reagan in attendance.
More importantly for Petty and Almirola was that the win all but guaranteed the fabled No. 43 a spot in the Chase. He becomes the 11th winner in the 16-driver Chase field with only eight races remaining before the series moves into the championship round of 10 races.
PIT NOTES: The end of an era occurred when the Coke Zero 400 ended as it was the last race MRN’s Barney Hall will call on the radio. Hall has been calling races for 54 years and for most of us fans the thoughts of listening to Hall on the car radio or at home puts a huge smile on our faces. His voice was indeed the voice of NASCAR and it will be missed.
Event: Camping World RV Sales 301
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1-mile oval, 12 degrees of banking)
Date: July 13, 1 p.m.
Defending Champion: Brian Vickers