Every sport has its share of asterisks. There are always going to be games, races and matches that don’t end to our satisfaction, records that are cheaply broken and even legacies that are called into question.
Baseball deals with the term more than any other sport. Alex Rodriguez could actually trademark the asterisk at this point, and one of the game’s most revered records is held by Barry Bonds, a man regarded by many as a cheater. In basketball, there are the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, who claimed world titles, but only when the league’s best player, Michael Jordan, had left. Then there’s the USSR beating the U.S. men’s basketball team for the gold medal in 1972. Even entire Olympics can receive asterisks, like when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 games and the Soviet Union followed suit in 1984. Every Tour de France race in the last two decades deserves a mark, too.
In auto racing, asterisks are synonymous with cheating, and even more so, rain and fuel mileage. A notable exception would be Kevin Conway’s NASCAR Cup rookie of the year award, earned because he was the only one up for it. But more often than not, rain is the culprit, Mother Nature who cooks the Upset Special. Joey Logano and David Reutimann’s first wins will always have an asterisk. Both drivers stayed out when the cars in front of them pitted, and then skies opened and they were declared winners.
Sunday’s race may have set a new asterisks record, and here’s why:
1. It was a superspeedway race. Winning one of these races just isn’t going to earn the same respect in the garage or with the fan base as it would if a driver won anywhere else.
2. Only 112 of the scheduled 160 laps were completed. We remember rain-shortened wins and frown upon them.
3. Terry Labonte, Morgan Shepherd, Dave Marcis and Danica Patrick were the only drivers left. It’s not Aric Almirola’s fault that the sport’s biggest names were caught up in the big wrecks, but if Almirola wrestled the lead away from four Hendrick cars, we all know it would mean a little bit more.
4. The conspiracy theories about NASCAR’s quick call of the race to put the No. 43 back in victory lane. I don’t agree at all that any fix was in place, but unfortunately, it was a main topic of discussion a day later.
In case you lost count, that’s:
2014 Coke Zero 400 Daytona Aric Almirola****
Unfortunately, it’s the story of Almirola’s career. He earned a ride with Joe Gibbs Racing through the Drive to Diversity program, was credited with his first and only Nationwide win after Denny Hamlin drove his car to victory and now he’s won his first Sprint Cup race at a restrictor plate track in the rain. He’s a driving asterisk.
Almirola was undoubtedly embarrassed about the Gibbs Nationwide fiasco. At Milwaukee in 2007, he qualified on the pole, but was forced to vacate the seat of the No. 20 after 59 laps because Hamlin had arrived and Rockwell Automation wanted him in the driver’s seat. Hamlin came from the back to win and celebrated in victory lane, while Almirola was credited with the win. The incident altered the course of his career, providing opportunities while also relegating him to trivia question territory.
Well, there was no sense of shame from Almirola in victory lane Sunday, nor should there have been. He played the conditions he was dealt better than the other 42 drivers in the field. He deflected the naysayers by saying that everyone knew what they were racing for at the end. He said they knew that was the end and they were fighting for the win.
Almirola is going to hear the chatter, though, and when the euphoria wears off, he’s going to be hungry to win one without the asterisk attached.
The truth is every win goes down in the record book the same, but its significance to us is always different. I could lie and tell you that a win is a win, but that’s bull. In my eyes, Paul Menard’s Brickyard 400 victory doesn’t hold the same weight as Ryan Newman’s. Newman dominated, while Menard played the fuel strategy right with a 20th-place car. We remember the circumstances behind those wins, giving certain drivers more benefit than others. And we should.
I touched on many of the negatives from the weekend: the rain, the shortened race and those pesky conspiracy theories. There also were overwhelming positives: Richard Petty’s 43 winning for the first time in 15 years, an underdog taking a spot in the Chase and one of the most likeable drivers in the garage earning his first trophy.
It’s really a shame that it comes with an asterisk. Now, it’s up to Almirola to erase it.
It can be done. Logano and Reutimann each proved themselves with dominating victories the second time around. Hopefully, Almirola is able to do the same.