Aric Almirola, right, celebrates with crew member Jeff Keller, left, 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/John Raoux)
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Aric Almirola waited two days to experience one of the highlights of his first victory in NASCAR's premier series.
It came during a dinner Tuesday night when he finally saw car owner Richard Petty, whose famed No. 43 racer Almirola put in Victory Lane on Sunday at Daytona International Raceway. It was the iconic car's first victory in 15 years and a span of 544 races.
"When he walked up to me, he gave me a hug and he told me he was proud of me," Almirola said Wednesday, reflecting on his meeting with Petty. "To have Richard Petty come up and 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 for the rest of my life."
Petty, also known as "The King," is a seven-time series champion who won a record 200 races. Almirola said Petty deserves a lot of credit for making his victory possible.
"The reality is that from 1999 and even before 1999, through that time period and over the last 15 years, Richard Petty Motorsports has not been a race team that was really capable of winning races all the time," Almirola said. "They were doing all they could to just get to the race track."
It was Petty, he said, who finally realized the team could no longer keep its operation in his hometown of Randleman, North Carolina, but had to move to the Charlotte area, where most teams have shops.
"That was the start of them basically remaking the race team," said Almirola, in his third year with RPM. He was contending for a victory at Kansas last season, running side by side with Jimmie Johnson, and dueling Carl Edwards at Bristol this year, but a blown right front tire ruined both runs.
The breakthrough victory came on the 20th anniversary of Petty's 200th victory, and while some fans and other drivers grumbled that the race was called too soon after several rain delays, Almirola isn't apologizing.
"The only way that that would affect me would be if I rode around in 35th all day and everybody wrecked in front of me and I weasled my way through it and got handed the win," he said. "We were capable of winning with or without that happening."
Fellow driver Greg Biffle agrees.
"He wasn't handed anything," Biffle said. "He had a fast car."
Conventional wisdom this season suggests that Almirola can now count on a spot in the Chase for the championship because he won a race, but the driver isn't taking that for granted just yet.
Only eight races remain before the 16 driver field is set in the final regular season race at Richmond International Raceway, and 11 drivers have already won races. If six non-winners thus far win in the coming weeks, there will be more race winners than spots in the playoffs.
It's unlikely, but possible.
"We've got to get through the next couples of weeks and make sure," Almirola said.