DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aric Almirola loves to work on cars. To race them, he says is a bonus.
And to become the first driver of Cuban descent to win in NASCAR’s top series, as he did Sunday at Daytona International Speedway for Richard Petty Motorsports, is fulfillment of a dream beyond any expectations.
Almirola, 30, grew up not far from Daytona and raced go-karts in the shadow of the World Center of Racing. He attended the University of Central Florida and was working on his degree in mechanical engineering when he got the chance to participate as a development driver with Joe Gibbs Racing and its diversity partnership with former NFL player Reggie White in 2004.
“Now, here I am a winner in the Sprint Cup Series,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing. It’s just really surreal to be able to make it to this level. I think about this often. I’m one of 43 guys who get to do what I do on Sundays and race at this level and I feel very blessed and lucky to have this opportunity.”
Sunday, his prayers for rain were answered as he waited out an hour-long rain delay. When NASCAR made the Coke Zero 400 official after 112 of 160 scheduled laps, Almirola had his first Sprint Cup win.
“In 2012, when I came here, Richard Petty Motorsports was on the rebound,” Almirola said. “It had been through some turmoil and came out of that. Like Richard said, he wasn’t going to give up on it. 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 – to get the 43 car back to Victory Lane.
“I think it’s very cool that we won on this weekend – 30 years to the weekend that The King (Petty) won his 200th race.”
To get the job done at Daytona made it that much more special for Almirola.
“I said it last week when I when I went to Tampa to a lot of pre-event media for Daytona. I said, ‘Man, of all the places I could pick to win, I would pick Daytona. I grew up two hours away (in Tampa) I’ve sat in these grandstands … My family loaded up every Christmas, and after Christmas dinner, we got ready for kart week. I’d race right outside this race track at the municipal stadium and come out over here and check out this race track.”
Even more fitting, Almirola was driving the U.S. Air Force car on Sunday. Of Cuban-American descent, he was born at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. His paternal grandparents emigrated from Cuba in 1966.
That also makes Almirola a lightning rod for attention in NASCAR’s ongoing quest for diversity. His win on Sunday makes him the third Latin driver – joining Juan Pablo Montoya and Nelson Piquet Jr. – to win a national series race.
“I love racing, period,” Almirola said. “There’s many a weekend or even during a week when I have an opportunity to go help a friend work on a late model or go sprint car racing with Tony Stewart or help him on his sprint cars. I’m up for that because I enjoy racing. This is just an added bonus that I get to be a winning driver.
“Everybody always asks me about how much pressure it is to drive ‘The King’s’ car and all that stuff,” says Almirola, the 43rd driver to pilot the No. 43 car. “To be honest, nobody can put any more pressure on me than me. I want to win for myself.
“I know that sounds terrible. But it’s more about winning so I can feel a sense of accomplishment than just winning to give Richard Petty another win. He’s won enough races. I’m just glad we got this 43 car back to Victory Lane.”
Almirola says there’s plenty of credit to go around, from his team’s sponsors to competition director Sammy Johns to crew chief Trent Owens and the crew behind the scenes.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that show up to work every morning at 6 a.m. and give their heart and soul to build the best cars they can.
“We have our off weekends, don’t get me wrong. But for the large majority of the races, we run in the top 15. We’re not Jimmie Johnson. We don’t win every week. But I think what we are accomplishing and what we are doing is extremely respectable.”
Almirola’s victory was his second top-five and fourth top-10 finish this season - and all but assured him a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. It moved him up two places to 21st in series points – one spot behind Stewart and ahead of Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. among other notables.
“I feel like I’m the best race car driver I’ve ever been today,” he said. “And I feel like I continue to get better very week, having Trent Owens work on these race cars and the group of guys we have giving me the best car they can bring to the race track every single weekend.”
Almirola led 14 of the final 15 laps, taking the lead from Busch on the final restart.
“I could see how dark it was getting on the backstretch and in Turn 3,” he said. “I knew the rain was close and I knew it was time to go. Trent had me in position to be up front and our pit crew did a great job to get us out behind Kurt for that last restart.
“I was actually shocked that he took the bottom on the restart. I thought for sure he was going to take the top. When we took off, I just made sure I side-drafted the heck out of him and stayed right on his door so he couldn’t get away from me.”
The rest was soon history. A new little piece of it for the 43, Richard Petty Motorsports and the kid who began his career in the shadows of Daytona.