LOUDON, N.H. – Everything has seemed to go wrong this season for Aric Almirola, but Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway everything finally went right.
Almirola had the fastest car when it mattered the most, taking the lead late in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 and holding off Christopher Bell in the final laps of a race that was shortened by eight laps due to impending darkness after a nearly two hour red flag for rain early in the race.
“This is by far one of my favorite race tracks,” said Almirola, who only had two top-10 finishes this season prior to Sunday’s race. “I love coming up to the New England area and racing. I love this race track. I had this race won a couple of years ago and I gave it away. I lost it. I am so glad to win a race here with this race team.”
Almirola started the final stage in the top-five, but the battle at the front was between Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney. The two traded the lead multiple times between lap 198 and lap 206 while Almirola set about running down third-place Kevin Harvick.
Blaney eventually emerged with the race lead while Almirola was able to get to third around the lap 220 mark. It didn’t take him long to run down Keselowski, whom he caught and passed on lap 237. That left only Blaney in front of Almirola.
On lap 242 Almirola was there and began challenging him for the race lead. Four laps later Almirola completed the pass in turns three and four to take the lead for the first time.
Pit stops followed within a few laps, with Keselowski making the first move to pit road on lap 249. Almirola and Blaney followed one lap later, with Almirola emerging in front of the Team Penske drivers.
With his tires already up to temperature, Keselowski was able to catch and pass Almirola briefly before Almirola ran him back down and passed him again on lap 259. All that was happening behind Matt DiBenedetto, who had stayed out in the hopes that the race would be called early due to darkness.
On lap 274 DiBenedetto gave up his pursuit and pitted for fuel and tires, handing the race lead back to Almirola. Behind him Christopher Bell, who won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race, was marching after getting around Keselowski for second on lap 270.
With 18 laps left in the race NASCAR made the call to shorten the race, announcing to teams and drivers that there would be 10 laps left as of that lap. Bell was still catching Almirola and got a bit of help from the slower car of Austin Dillon, who held Almirola up.
Almirola eventually muscled his way under Dillon and moved him out of the way in turns one and two with five laps left. By that point Bell was within half a second of Almirola, but that was as close as Bell was going to get.
Now clear of Dillon, Almirola held his ground and drove to his third NASCAR Cup Series victory and his first since the 2018 season at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway to earn himself a spot in the Cup Series playoffs. It was also Almirola’s first victory on a track besides Daytona Int’l Speedway or Talladega.
“It is no doubt that we have struggled, but guess what? We’re going playoff racing,” Almirola said. “For so long I’ve been so close to winning at some of these race tracks like here, Dover, I’ve let it slip away.
“I’m just so proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and the Roush Yates Engine shop. We’ve been fighting, scratching, clawing. Man, this feels so good to have something pay off for all the hard work.”
Bell admitted that he would have liked to run the eight laps they lost to darkness just to see if he could have caught Almirola.
“I didn’t know how many laps they cut us short, but definitely whenever I saw the board and saw eight laps short, it stings,” Bell said. “I feel like I probably had a little bit better pace than him.
“If I was able to get to him it was going to be a heck of a race.”
Keselowski finished third, followed by Joey Logano and Blaney. Logano rebounded after going two laps down early in the race after his crew worked on his car during the red flag period to remove a piece of rubber from the throttle linkage.
The race got off to an auspicious start as it began to rain just prior to the start of the race. The rain picked up and on lap nine leader Kyle Busch and runner-up Martin Truex Jr. both crashed on the wet track entering turn one.
Busch retired from the race as a result of the incident, but held his tongue when discussing the incident.
“That’s going to get me in trouble,” Busch said in response to a question about improving communication with NASCAR officials in the wake of the crash.
Almirola became the 13th driver to score a win this season, leaving only three playoff spots available to drivers to make the postseason via points. Tyler Reddick currently holds the last playoff spot by eight points over his Richard Childress Racing teammate Dillon.