RICHMOND — As a matter of fact, no, Aric Almirola isn't the least bit apologetic, doesn't feel the least bit unworthy of winning a rain-shortened NASCAR race in which most of the field turned into a darn fine scrap metal collection.
Almirola, the 30-year-old Florida native, had one of the best cars at last weekend's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. He avoided the wreckage and debris that claimed a slew of contenders and gave his boss, the most famous and successful driver in NASCAR history, his team's first win in 15 years.
"The only way that would affect me would be if I rode around in 35th all day, everybody wrecked in front of me, and I just weaseled my way through it and got handed the win," Almirola said Wednesday. "I was ahead of everybody that wrecked — especially the second wreck that took out all the cars.
"I was ahead of them," he said. "I was second, I was racing with Kurt Busch for the lead. So I don't feel bad about it at all. I feel like we had a strong car. We ran up front and we were capable of winning with or without that happening, in my opinion."
Almirola and several of his Sprint Cup compadres were at Richmond International Raceway on Tuesday and Wednesday testing tires — a result of rubber issues at the spring race at RIR, as well as part of Goodyear's ongoing efforts to create the proper tire for NASCAR's present generation car.
Almirola traveled to Richmond by conventional means, but he might have been able to float there on the happy mojo of returning Richard Petty Motorsports' famed No. 43 car to Victory Lane at the sport's signature track.
"It's been a crazy 48 hours," he said. "What's it, Wednesday? So I guess it's been a little longer. It's been so much fun to be a part of it. It's been so refreshing to see the guys' faces on the team. There's a level of happiness that we just haven't seen. We have a good time on the race team, regardless, but the level of happiness with all these guys this race team has this week is really cool to see."
Almirola's win was the first for Petty's team since 1999. It came 30 years to the week after Petty won his 200th and final NASCAR race, and four days after the King's 77th birthday.
Almirola's victory virtually assures him a spot in the 10-race Chase for the championship, tweaked this year to include 16 cars and with a greater emphasis placed on wins. The win provides a security blanket. Without it, he would be in 20-something-th place and desperate for a checkered flag in the final eight races leading into the Chase.
"We can show up to some race tracks and run a little bit more of an aggressive set-up, and if we do blow a tire, so what?" Almirola said. "If we wreck and finish 30th, it's not the end of the world. We're still off to the Chase, we're going to go race for a championship.
"I think it allows us to find that edge, so we can be aggressive and kind of push the envelope," he said. "But we're not going to just change everything about what we do because we're in the Chase. If we're two or three laps short on fuel at a race, go for it, what do we have to lose? Where otherwise, we'd be kind of points-racing and be a little bit more cautious."
Almirola and Petty Motorsports were the first outside the five-team power cartel to win a race this season. Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas and Roush Fenway have won 17 of 18 races this season and accounted for 71 percent of top-five finishes.
That said, Sunday's win was by no means a surprise to Almirola. He thought it should have come sooner. He believed he had the best car in March at Bristol, where he eventually finished third to Carl Edwards. He had a top-shelf car last year at Kansas before blowing a tire.
"We've had moments where we're like, man, we can do this, we can go and win races," he said. "So I felt like it's been coming. Over the winter, we promised our sponsors, and particularly Smithfield (Foods), we said we'll get you guys to Victory Lane. We're right on the cusp of getting this race team back to its winning ways, and we did it."
Sunday's race, delayed a day by rain, saw 36 of the 43 cars involved in two major wrecks. Rain halted the race after 112 of 160 laps and NASCAR officials finally called it, giving Almirola the win.
"Aric had a very fast car," said Greg Biffle, also in town testing tires. "He was leading that race when the caution came out. He wasn't handed the lead by a pit cycle or by the wreck or anything else. He was leading the race. He's for sure right that he wasn't handed anything. He had a fast car. He was pushing me right before the green-flag pit cycle."
Said Almirola: "We all knew that the rain was coming, so we raced like it was the last lap for probably the last 15 or 20 laps of the green flag run that we did. It doesn't dampen the mood for me at all. I feel like we had a race-winning car and we won the race."
Almirola and Petty, along with several within the organization, were feted Tuesday night at a dinner by Smithfield Foods honchos — their first face-to-face meeting since Sunday. Petty had left the track before NASCAR officials called the race.
"He walked up to me and gave me a hug and told me he was proud of me," Almirola said. "To have Richard Petty come up and to tell you he's proud of you, and knowing that you got his No. 43 car back to Victory Lane is really special. I'll take that with me the rest of my life."
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