“Let’s go playoff racing, how about that,” Aric Almirola said.
Drama was abundant in the racing world Sunday and NASCAR took the cake at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In a huge turn of events in the playoffs and the Cup Series in 2021, Almirola scored his first win of the 2021 season to snap a dreadful year.
He entered Sunday 27th in points and in desperation mode to do anything to reach the playoffs. It’s Almirola’s first win since Talladega in the Fall of 2018 and just the third of his career.
While Formula 1 had a pure racing incident, NASCAR fumbled track conditions as weather was a factor through the day.
Even with weepers causing the track to stay wet before green flag, NASCAR still chose to wave the green flag with disaster inevitable.
That disaster happened on lap five as on entry to turns 1 and two, leaders Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had no traction due to the track being soaked and spun out. Both Joe Gibbs Racing drivers collected heavy damage with Busch DNF’ing from the race.
Before the red flag, Busch had his window net down while on the track and even gave the pace car a couple of bumps to show his frustration with the officials.
“There’s no sense in saying what I want to say,” Busch said. “We’re done. It’s over. There’s no fixing that thing.”
Truex remained in the race, but his team had to complete major repairs to get the No. 19 Toyota back on track.
“I yelled on the radio the track is wet wet,” Truex said.
After a 1 hour, 41 minute red flag to dry the track, stage one resumed with Chase Elliott as the leader.
Following 36 laps out front, Elliott, who won the SRX season finale at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway Saturday night, surrendered the lead to a hard-charging Ryan Blaney. Blaney’s Penske teammate in Brad Keselowski also made his way to the top three while Blaney went on to win his fourth stage of the season.
A slow stop on pit road for Blaney found him outside the top five and Kevin Harvick, who remains winless in the 2021 season, led the field to the stage two restart.
With darkness and more weather threatening the completion of the race, NASCAR couldn’t afford a handful of cautions on top of their stage breaks. It didn’t start well in stage two as yellows came out for an incident involving Quin Houff and Ryan Newman with Chris Buescher and Bubba Wallace spinning off turn two just 11 laps later.
The former incident caused a frustrated Houff to side swipe Newman during the caution.
“Patch it up,” Houff said to his No. 00 team. “I’ve got to get him.”
Meanwhile, sights of 2020 occurred on the restart as Harvick and Denny Hamlin led the field to green, but it was Keselowski clearing Harvick for the lead just 13 laps into the green-flag stretch.
The (neon) blue deuce went on to win stage two, which marked Keselowski’s second of the season.
While Darlington and Nashville put on quality shows earlier in the season, the racing at New Hampshire stole the show as the final stage became an all-out war between Blaney and Keselowski.
Blaney led the early part of the final stage, but had his teammate beating down his bumper to get around him. Keselowski used up his stuff, which allowed Blaney to get a comfortable lead again.
However, through the darkness shined Almirola as he stalked the leaders from afar and found himself within striking distance deep into the green-flag run.
Almirola worked his way around Blaney with 55 to go and the pressure was on to hold the lead with NASCAR’s potential to shorten the race to 10 laps to go at any point.
However, with the race remaining under green, pit stops occurred and Almirola’s crew succeeded on the money stop to stay out front. Keselowski got back around the No. 10 on the short run, but Almirola easily passed Keselowski as the run got longer.
Matt DiBenedetto risked it all to bank on NASCAR shortening the race, but he had to pit for fuel, which gave the lead back to Almirola.
The race shortened and a charging Christopher Bell had no answer for Almirola and Stewart-Haas’ driver finally netted the team their first win of 2021.
Saturday’s Xfinity winner in Bell finished second, while Keselowski came home third.
Joey Logano rallied from a two-lap penalty after the red flag to finish fourth. Blaney rounded out the top five.
The playoff picture is now flipped upside down as Tyler Reddick now owns the 16th and final spot in the playoffs with his Richard Childress Racing teammate in Austin Dillon just five points behind him.
While Hamlin remains winless, he still holds a 13-point lead over Kyle Larson for the regular-season championship lead, which will decide if Hamlin has a cushion going into the first round or will be under pressure to get to the Round of 12.
The Olympic break is now in effect for NASCAR and the association will return in three weeks at Watkins Glen International with four races left until the postseason.
Unofficial race results:
Unofficial playoff standings: