Commentary

Aric Almirola king for a day (sort of)

Updated: May 26, 2012, 12:45 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- All had been introduced at the front table of the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield media center on Thursday night and the moderator was ready to begin the news conference with a statement from pole sitter Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports.

"I guess it's the first time we've ever won a pole ..." team co-owner Richard Petty began.

Almirola interrupted: "Hey, it's my turn! He said me!"

Petty flashed his oh-so-familiar smile underneath his oh-so-familiar dark sunglasses, mustache and trademark black cowboy hat with the peacock feather.

[+] EnlargeAric Almirola
Kevin Liles/US PresswireAric Almirola put Richard Petty's No. 43 car on the pole at the Coca-Cola 600 for the first time in 46 years.

"I'm talking," said Petty, whose cars swept the front row for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 with Marcos Ambrose taking the second spot. "Keep quiet. We've just got you along for the ride."

"The King" had spoken.

And with that the world of motorsports seemed right again.

With that, everything else happening on this Memorial Day weekend didn't seem important, from Danica Patrick to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to anything going on at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This wasn't just a pole. This was a moment.

The No. 43 is the most iconic number in the history of NASCAR, maybe all of motorsports. It is the number that the Hall of Famer Petty drove to seven titles and a record 200 victories. It is the number that pulls on the heartstrings of fans young and old.

And at least for a few days, until the green flag waves late Sunday afternoon, it'll reign supreme again.

You can't help but smile just thinking about it. Even five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who one day hopes to break the record for titles shared by Petty and Dale Earnhardt, could take solace in being knocked off the front row by NASCAR's first family.

"I really wish it was the No. 48 on the front row, but the Petty family and what they have meant to NASCAR the years they have been in the sport, I'm just happy for those guys," said Johnson, who will start third.

This feels right in so many ways.

Not only is NASCAR's most famous number starting on the pole on one of the biggest weekends in motorsports outside of the Daytona 500 -- a weekend set aside to honor the armed forces -- it'll be carrying the Air Force on its hood at a time when Congress is trying to eliminate military sponsorship in NASCAR.

Now toss in that Almirola is the son of an airman, born on Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

It just doesn't get any better than this -- unless, say, "The King" is in Victory Lane on Sunday evening.

"Nothing would make me happier than to see 'The King' smile in Victory Lane, and that's our goal," Ambrose said.

With apologies to Ambrose, a victory for his No. 9 team wouldn't mean nearly as much as one for the 43. That number hasn't sat on a pole for the sport's longest race in 46 years. It hasn't won a race since John Andretti took the checkered at Martinsville Speedway in 1999.

It has been rendered almost inconsequential.

Until now.

What happened on Thursday evening evoked memories of the way NASCAR used to be and the way many wish it were again. It linked the past to the present in a way few things can.

And most importantly, it made a legend who fought tooth and nail the past few years to keep the Petty organization alive -- from leaving his roots in Level Cross, N.C., when it was Richard Petty Enterprises, to practically selling his soul to George Gillette Jr. for financial security -- smile.

Yes, this was big.

And imagine how big it will be on Sunday seeing the 74-year-old Petty stand tall above the crowd of fans and photographers on pit road at the front of the field. Not even the re-creation of a military battle as we've often seen in the prerace show here or the flyover with hundreds of those in military garb standing at attention will top that.

"It means a lot," said Sammy Johns, the director of RPM race operations. "The last time I saw [Petty] this giddy, I think, was in Victory Lane at Sonoma."

That was 2009, when Kasey Kahne drove the No. 9 RPM car to a win. Petty, whose family long shunned alcohol companies as a sponsor, was so happy that he celebrated by drinking Sonoma's finest wine in Victory Lane.

But that wasn't in the 43. Petty can talk until he is Petty Blue in the face about how he doesn't care which of his cars wins on Sunday, but there is no denying a victory by the 43 would be more special, just as a pole by that number is.

This is the number that has won a NASCAR-record 122 poles, 114 by Petty himself.

"Is that all?" Petty joked.

See, giddy.

But what made this moment even more special is Petty wasn't happy for himself. He's had enough success for a lifetime. His joy came from seeing the smiles of mechanics and engineers and crewmen who have sweated to make his cars relevant again.

Nothing would make me happier than to see 'The King' smile in Victory Lane, and that's our goal.

-- Marcos Ambrose

"There's nobody's crowd that works any harder than our crowd," Petty said. "Everybody says we work hard and all this. All these guys work hard. A guy that runs 45th, he works hard. It really makes me feel good that our guys have been working hard for a long time, and they finally got a little bit of recognition."

Petty gets it. He always has.

He understands that even though he stands taller than practically anybody in the history of the sport, the sport isn't about him. He understands, unlike many drivers today, the importance of stopping to sign an autograph or pose with a fan for a picture even when your mind is elsewhere.

He sat on the front porch of his Level Cross home and signed autographs for more than six straight hours after announcing 1992 would be his last season as a driver. When his empire was crumbling the past few years, he didn't hide from the media -- and he almost always kept a positive outlook.

Journalists aren't supposed to cheer for one team or driver, but you can't help but want to see Petty succeed. It's like wanting to see Babe Ruth take one more home run swing or Michael Jordan drain one last basket.

This was more than a pole story. This was a feel-good story for the entire world of motorsports. How else do you explain that what normally is a 10-minute news conference with the pole sitter turned into an event with the driver, crew chief, director of race operations and co-owner that went on for more than a half hour?

As one writer said after being at the track for more than 10 hours, "I don't care how long this lasts. I could sit here and listen to 'The King' talk all night."

If the 43 wins on Sunday, Petty may be asked to talk all night. Almirola, no offense, will have to sit there and listen, just as Petty made him do on Thursday.

"He'll have to learn," Petty said with a laugh, explaining why he took the spotlight from his driver. "I'm trying to teach him a little something."

And that's Rule No. 1 in racing and life: Never interrupt "The King" when he has something to say.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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