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Signature win for Almirola, No. 43 car at Daytona

Monday - 7/7/2014, 1:06pm  ET

Aric Almirola celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, July 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

AP Sports Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Aric Almirola grew up two hours from Daytona International Speedway, attended countless races as a kid and even "dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level at this racetrack."

He found out Sunday, after two days of thunderstorms, three red-flag stoppages and dozens of wrecked cars.

As a bonus, he also accomplished the feat on a milestone anniversary for his car owner, NASCAR legend Richard Petty.

Almirola won the delayed and rain-shortened Sprint Cup race at Daytona, putting Petty's famed blue No. 43 back on top for the first time since 1999.

The 30-year-old Almirola's first Cup win came on the same weekend Petty celebrated the 30th anniversary of his 200th career victory.

"The 43 car is without a doubt the most famous car in our sport's history," Almirola said. "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 2 1/2 years I guess, but I finally did it."

Petty wasn't around for the festivities, having already left Daytona during one of the many delays.

The Coke Zero 400 was supposed to start Saturday, but steady rain forced it to be postponed a day. When it did finally get going, it was interrupted several more times.

There were seven cautions and three red flags, two of them because of huge accidents that took out most of the 43-car field. Top contenders Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch were among those knocked out.

Only seven drivers avoided both crashes. Not surprisingly, Almirola was among them.

He became the first Cup driver other than Petty to win in the legendary No. 43 at Daytona. The previous time the 43 won was with John Andretti behind the wheel at Martinsville in 1999. So Petty's renowned car went 543 races without a victory.

"Everybody always asks me, 'How, how much pressure is it to drive The King's car?'" Almirola said. "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."

Here are five other things to know about the Daytona race:

NO SWEEP: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had hoped to become the sixth driver to sweep the season at Daytona.

His chances were shot just 20 laps into the race when he was collected in a 16-car accident that caused serious damage to his No. 88 Chevrolet. He fell a lap down during repairs, eventually got back on the lead lap and finished 14th.

The Daytona 500 winner was particularly annoyed because he'd actually avoided the accident, but got hit from behind.

"We were going to be fine on that first wreck, but we got run over," he said. "I can't believe all of the cars we have wrecked today."

WILD RIDE: Kyle Busch went for the wildest of rides in a 25-car crash that will be remembered for his car flipping onto its roof. But that wreck was just as unsettling for Jamie McMurray, whose car briefly went airborne.

"I have never had a car that's off the ground, and it's a crazy feeling, and it's a helpless feeling," McMurray said. "I was really lucky that it set back down."

As spectacular as the big accidents look, McMurray said they are usually the easiest for drivers.

"You see these big wrecks and those are probably the easiest hits you take all year long because everyone is going the same speed, and for the most part, those don't hurt near as bad as if you have a tire issue or something," he said.

CHASING THE CHASE: Slots are filling fast in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, with Almirola's victory likely securing him the latest berth.

There are only eight races remaining and, with 11 winners to date, there could effectively only be five remaining spots to fill. NASCAR overhauled the format this year to create a win-and-in system, and several stars have yet to grab the needed victory.

Among the winless with two months to go are Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer. It could lead to one of the most competitive on-track summers in some time.

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