Aric Almirola goes from underdog to Playoff contender with Loudon win

Aric Almirola goes from underdog to Playoff contender with Loudon win
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

For the first time since 2018, Aric Almirola found his way to Victory Lane—and it wasn’t at a superspeedway.

After multiple adjustments, the No. 10 Smithfield Ford came alive in the second stage of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Almirola, who entered the race 27th in the point standings and perhaps the least likely of the Stewart-Haas Racing drivers to advance to the Playoffs, took a no-prisoners approach in the final stage.

With impending darkness—and NASCAR threatening to shorten the race after an earlier rain delay—Almirola wheeled his way to the lead on Lap 246. Although he sacrificed the point to pit, Almirola knocked off his fellow contenders and a rash of lapped cars to regain the lead and the win.

“We had to win, we had to win to get in the Playoffs,” Almirola said. “We’ve been through so much, and I just stood the test. Everybody has just been working so hard…There’ve been so many people who have continued to support us through the crappiest year ever. Man, this feels so good for them. My pit crew did a phenomenal job on pit road. There’s no doubt we’ve struggled, but guess what? We’re going Playoff racing.”

Almirola isn’t the only driver who has struggled in the Stewart-Haas Racing stable. Despite Kevin Harvick winning nine races last year, neither he nor any of the other drivers had won in the first 22 races of 2021 entering New Hampshire.

At least Harvick had accumulated enough points to hold a place on the Playoff grid. Almirola was in the SHR cellar.

On Sunday, the No. 4 Ford led a race-high 66 laps. Yet once Almirola grabbed the lead, he was able to hold off a fast-charging Christopher Bell by .697-seconds at the finish. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Harvick, Kyle Larson, Ross Chastain, Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 10 in one of the strangest contests of the season.

NASCAR started the race despite rain falling on the Magic Mile. Kyle Busch led the first six laps before the wet conditions caused the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to spin into the Turn 1 wall. Much to Martin Truex Jr.’s chagrin, he followed Busch’s lead as did Hamlin, who did not sustain nearly the damage. Busch was eliminated. Truex finished 12th.

"We can only go kind of off the pre-race discussions we have before the race with Kip Childress, who drives our pace car – constant communication with him before the race starts,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer on NBC. “‘Are we good to go?’ Even the lap before we start, we go green, Kip gave us the all-clear to start that race.

“I’ve been here a number of years. That’s the first time I’ve seen that in terms of how quickly it came upon us. Certainly mist, we’ve raced in mist conditions before. The track got slick, obviously, in a hurry and it was unfortunate what took place."

The race returned to yellow on Lap 9, but not without incident. Joey Logano had a piece of debris stuck in his throttle linkage. NASCAR penalized the team two laps and Logano dropped to 36th after a crewman went under the car during the red flag to remove the debris. When Logano asked crew chief Paul Wolfe what their comeback strategy was, Wolfe replied, “Go like hell!”

Blaney took the lead from Chase Elliott on Lap 62 and held on for 16 laps to win the first stage. On Lap 146, Brad Keselowski grabbed the lead from Harvick following the fifth caution—triggered by contact between Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace which sent Wallace and Chris Buescher into a synchronized spin on the backstretch. Keselowski held on to win the second stage.

Hamlin, who dropped to fourth just prior to the end of Stage 2, pitted with the leaders during the sixth and final caution. After the stop, he asked the No. 11 JGR team, “Do I have a wheel coming off?” Crew chief Chris Gabehart confirmed that a lug nut was stuck behind the wheel. He told Hamlin to return to the pits and the driver dropped to 24th to start the final stage.

Keselowski retained the lead and a chippy battle ensued between him and Blaney after the Lap 193 restart. Blaney passed the No. 2 Ford for the lead on Lap 198 and Keselowski gave his teammate a shove entering Turn 4. While the cat and mouse games continued between the two Penske drivers, Harvick closed in. But by Lap 219, Almirola passed Harvick for fourth and set his sights on Keselowski. He caught the No. 2 Ford on Lap 235 and passed him for second two laps later.

“Put the hammer to him, let’s go,” commanded Bugarewicz. “For a win, at all costs, you got him in the crosshairs, go get him,"

Nine laps later, Almirola took the lead from Blaney as green-flag stops began on Lap 246. Keselowski and Elliott came in one lap later. Almirola and Blaney followed on Lap 250. Eight laps later, Almirola used the high lane to pass Keselowski for third with Matt DiBenedetto in the lead and William Byron running second. Byron pitted then DiBenedetto on Lap 273 turning over the lead to the No. 10 Ford.

Although Almirola held a 1.6-second lead over Bell, chatter began on his radio regarding the sun setting quickly.

“OK, I’m ready for the 10 to go,” said the crew chief expecting an early call from NASCAR due to darkness.

“You and me both,” replied spotter Joel Edmunds.

“It’s plenty dark,” added Almirola.

And on Lap 283, their wish was finally granted. NASCAR told the teams they were cutting the length of the race by eight laps. Despite the traffic, Almirola held the point for his third-career win.

"Yes, yes, yes, oh god, that is awesome, God is good,” Almirola said over the radio. "Hey, let's go Playoff racing. How about that?"

Almirola came into New Hampshire an underdog but left as a Playoff contender.

“That’s what a race car driver lives for and for so long I’ve been so close to winning at some of these racetracks like here, Dover, and I’ve let it slip away,” Almirola said. “I honestly hated it and my wife has hated it worse than I have. She’s always told me, ‘Honey, I want you to win so badly at somewhere other than a restrictor plate racetrack,’ and we did it today.  I’m so proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, Roush Yates Engine Shop.  We have been fighting, scratching, clawing and man, this feels so good to have something pay off for all the hard work, so just really happy.  Man, this means so much.  It’s hard to explain it, but I love coming up here to New England.

“This is by far one of my favorite race tracks. 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. And I am so glad to win a race here with this race team. It’s so good, man.”

Hamlin leads the point standings by 13 over Larson. Tyler Reddick is on the bubble with a five-point advantage over Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon. NASCAR is on a two-week hiatus due to the Olympics and will return to action at Watkins Glen on Aug. 8.

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