|SOURCE: Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images|
The finish was Almirola’s first of 2014 and his first in a Cup Series race since Las Vegas on February 28, 2010, 147 races ago. That race, more than four years ago, came while driving for Phoenix Racing when his unsponsored #09 Chevrolet fell out with a vibration after 23 laps.
2014 marks Almirola’s third full season as driver of Richard Petty Motorsports’ iconic #43, a ride he secured following a successful five-race stint in late 2010 driving the #9 Budweiser Ford in place of departing driver Kasey Kahne. In that time, Almirola has scored eleven of his thirteen career top-ten finishes, and has been instrumental in securing the #43 its best sponsorship contract since the old STP days with Smithfield Foods. It’s been a welcome change for RPM, which was created following the closure of Petty Enterprises in 2009, and for Almirola, who lost his ride with DEI following that team’s closure the same season.
Since then, Almirola has been inching closer to his first Cup Series victory. In October 2012, Almirola led 69 laps at Kansas and looked poised to score his first Cup Series win before he was taken out in a late-race crash. Then, just last Sunday in Bristol, Almirola battled to a career-best 3rd-place finish, running as high as 2nd before Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. edged him in the final laps. Hopes were high for another good run at Fontana.
In California, Almirola put up the 15th-fastest time in the opening session, then timed in 21st in qualifying with a speed of 183.955 mph. No drivers were sent home as just 43 cars showed up to the track following the withdrawals of J.J. Yeley and Dave Blaney. On Saturday, Almirola avoided the tire problems and crashes that affected many of his competitors and timed in 27th in Saturday’s second session, then 25th in Happy Hour.
At the start of Sunday’s race, the 43rd spot was held mostly by Ryan Truex, whose #83 Borla Exhaust Toyota trailed the field by a couple seconds during the first green-flag runs. However, with three cautions slowing the action in the first 60 laps without anyone suffering serious damage to their cars, all 43 cars remained running and on the lead lap for most of that time.
Travis Kvapil and Joe Nemechek briefly held 43rd as well before Lap 58, when Tony Stewart spun on the backstretch and ended up the first car one lap down. Just a few moments after the Lap 60 restart, however, the caution flew once more. Relief driver Sam Hornish, Jr. in Denny Hamlin’s #11 FedEx Toyota merged in front of traffic off the fourth corner, causing Almirola to lift off the gas. At the same time, rookie Brian Scott was sliding up the track, looking to get in line behind Almirola. The two made contact, sending both Almirola and Scott into the grass. Almirola came out worse in the deal as the nose of his Ford caught the grass, ripping off the sheetmetal.
It first appeared that Almirola would return to the track as FOX showed the #43 team put together a new nose for the car. However, the team ended up loading the car on the hauler instead. Almirola, furious with Scott, made his feelings known in an interview.
A combination of tire problems and strange mechanical gremlins plagued Sunday’s field, resulting in a unique Bottom Five. Finishing 42nd was Parker Kligerman, victim of a slip into the Turn 4 wall that destroyed his #30 Swan Racing Toyota. 41st was Kasey Kahne, who lost more than 20 laps with mechanical woes that sent his #5 Time Warner Cable Chevrolet to the garage. Greg Biffle ended up 40th, thirteen laps ahead of Kahne, as his #16 3M Aerospace Ford was overheating. And 39th was 7th-place starter Joey Logano, whose backup car broke the rear end following tire problems in practice.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #43-Aric Almirola / 68 laps / crash
42) #30-Parker Kligerman / 85 laps / crash
41) #5-Kasey Kahne / 180 laps / running
40) #16-Greg Biffle / 193 laps / running
39) #22-Joey Logano / 195 laps / running
*This is the first last-place finish for the #43 in a Cup Series race since Martinsville on April 1, 2007, when Bobby Labonte’s Cheerios / Betty Crocker Dodge finished under power, but 235 laps down to race winner Jimmie Johnson. Labonte was involved in a single-car accident on Lap 39 of the Goody’s Cool Orange 500, the first Martinsville race for NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow.” This is thus the first last-place finish for the #43 since the formation of Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009.
*The #43 had not finished last in a Cup race due to crash damage since April 17, 2005, when all-time last-place leader Jeff Green and his Cheerios Pillsbury Bake-Off Dodge was involved in a two-car accident with Dave Blaney after 31 laps of the Samsung / Radio Shack 500 at Texas.
*The #43 had never before finished last in a Cup Series race at Fontana. However, Almirola finished last in this very event once before, also while driving the #09 Phoenix Racing entry in 2010.
LAST-PLACE HISTORY OF THE #43 IN THE SPRINT CUP SERIES
*This is only the 30th last-place finish for the #43 in the history of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Ironically, the first two were not scored by Petty Enterprises.
The first driver to finish last in the #43 was Larry Mann, who on July 11, 1952 broke a radiator on his 1951 Hudson after 3 laps of a 200-lap race in Morristown, New Jersey (won by Lee Petty). The next was on August 17, 1956, when Louis Headley’s 1956 Plymouth fell out for unknown reasons after the opening lap of another New Jersey race at Old Bridge Stadium.
Twelve of the next fourteen were earned by Richard Petty, starting with The King’s first last-place finish at Bowman-Gray Stadium on June 27, 1959, when the transmission let go on his 1957 Oldsmobile after 14 laps, and ending with his 15th and final career last-place finish at North Wilkesboro on October 15, 1989. The other two went to Richard’s brother Maurice, whose 1961 Plymouth ruptured a fuel tank after 16 laps at Concord Speedway on November 5, 1961; and to Jimmy Massey, who crashed the #43 1963 Plymouth on the opening lap of a race at Martinsville on September 22, 1963.
Following Petty’s retirement in 1992, the #44 ran in place of the #43 for veteran Rick Wilson. The number then returned in 1994 with Wally Dallenbach, Jr. behind the wheel. An influx of several rookies and new teams that season made it difficult for Dallenbach to qualify for races, and he also brought the #43 its first last-place finish in nearly fifteen years when he lost the engine after 131 laps at Darlington on March 27, 1994.
John Andretti replaced Dallenbach, then traded the ride with the late Bobby Hamilton for the next five years. In between, Andretti scored the next five last-place runs for the #43: on October 30, 1994 at Phoenix after 31 laps due to a crash, in the 1999 Daytona 500 after a Lap 25 engine failure, at Martinsville on October 3, 1999 due to crash damage after 291 laps, at the Sonoma Raceway on June 25, 2000 due to a crash after 15 laps, and at Atlanta on October 27, 2002 due to a crash after 4 laps.
Between 2002 and last Sunday, three drivers finished last in the #43 a combined five times. Brazilian open-wheel star Christian Fittipaldi’s brief venture into NASCAR was marred by consecutive last-place finishes at Darlington and Richmond in September 2003. Jeff Green’s finish at Texas came two years later, followed in 2006 by an early engine failure for Bobby Labonte after he led 13 laps of the spring race at Atlanta. Following Labonte’s above-mentioned last-place run at Martinsville in 2007, the #43 never finished last until Sunday’s race.
The 2000 Sonoma event was to be the final race where STP ran as the #43's primary sponsor before Cheerios took over - but after John Andreti’s crash, the scheme ran once more in the season finale a Atlanta. The scheme has returned for select races ever since, and will again for Almirola’s next race next week at Martinsville.
LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Aric Almirola, Timmy Hill, Michael McDowell, Morgan Shepherd, Martin Truex, Jr. (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #33-Circle Sport, #43-Richard Petty Motorsports, #78-Furniture Row Racing, #87-NEMCO-JRR Motorsports, #95-Leavine Family Racing (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet, Ford (2)
2nd) Toyota (1)