As Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race rolled on, you could tell New Hampshire Motor Speedway was gearing up for something weird. There was a rain delay of nearly two hours after Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Jr. and others collapsed on a wet surface at the entrance to Turn 1.

With no lights on the track, officials were forced to announce the race eight laps earlier.

But Aric Almirola wins. Aric Almirola? Even the driver himself admitted the scale of the upheaval.

“No one should have thought we were going to win,” said Almirola. “Coming into this race, we never really gave anyone a reason to choose us, to be completely honest.”

In 373 career NASCAR Cup Series starts, Almirola had never won outside of the big race tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. He had endured a miserable year, having only achieved two top 10 rankings and entering New Hampshire 27th in the standings.

Some 232 points behind the playoff cup line, Almirola’s future with Stewart-Haas Racing looked precarious. He had five drop-outs in the first 13 races, as many as the last two years combined.

But the 37-year-old veteran never stopped believing it, circling New Hampshire on the calendar for months. He won that race just three years ago to spin his tires on a late restart, finishing third.

He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, advancing quietly from 22nd place as the opportunity presented itself. Those early Busch and Truex wrecks knocked out two favorites as Hendrick Motorsports struggled on a track they hadn’t won since 2012. Ford had won three straight races in the NHMS and the manufacturer had headed straight for the before. It looked like Almirola’s teammate Kevin Harvick was able to score four.

But Almirola has continued to climb in the rankings. Fifth at the end of stage two, an excellent long-haul car worked perfectly for the final 101 laps without warning. One by one, he picked Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney – some of the best in the business.

“I knew if we could get far enough ahead I could just hold on for 10 laps,” he said. “We would have a chance to go up front and take the lead.”

That’s exactly what happened, leaving the only shaky moments down the stretch when NASCAR called the race up as darkness approached. Matt DiBenedetto stretched out his fuel to try and take a break, but the sun didn’t set fast enough.

“Until the 21st, I could see perfectly,” joked Almirola. “As soon as the 21 took a dive, it got very dark very quickly.”

Nothing could darken Almirola’s mood after the most surprising victory of the year (William Hill Sportsbook had it at 75/1). The first SHR driver to land a playoff berth might have gotten another contract extension with sponsor Smithfield supporting him every step of the way.

“Unfortunately, I can’t give them the world,” he said. “But I can give them a race win every now and then, and today we were able to do that.”

Traffic report

Green: Christopher Bell – Joe Gibbs Racing’s skies parted to give Bell a second place finish, his second in the past three weeks. The Daytona road course winner in February creates momentum for the playoffs at the right time with gear good enough to challenge the Hendrick quartet.

Yellow: Kevin Harvick / Denny Hamlin – It was quite a turning point for Harvick, who led a record 66 laps and put themselves in a position to win. Instead, he watched his teammate Almirola secure the playoff spot while a sixth place didn’t do him much good. Hamlin spun early in the rain and had another disappointing performance, coming back to the 10th house.

Harvick and Hamlin combined to win NASCAR’s top 16 of 36 races last year. This time around? They are a 0-for-44 combined and are two of only three winless drivers to have a playoff berth. A wacky list of first-time winners in the last four races could TKOs both.

Red: Austin Dillon – Dillon started 104 points above the playoff cutoff line on Sunday. He finished five points below, forced to chase teammate Tyler Reddick for last place in the Richard Childress Racing family program. How is that to increase internal tension?

Seven straight races outside the top 10 didn’t help and a late move to block Almirola while spinning around, feeling a playoff spot was slipping away made him desperate.

Speeding Ticket: Joey Logano – As the race was stopped due to rain, Logano’s crew noticed a piece of rubber stuck in the throttle linkage. The driver and the team said they chose to take a photo with a camera phone in order to fix it once the race started.

This clip seems to tell a different story. Judge by yourself.

NASCAR officials hit hard, imposing a two-lap penalty on the crew working in red flag conditions. This killed Logano’s afternoon with what was arguably the fastest car in the race – although he eventually did both laps and placed fourth at the finish.

“I understand the rules are the rules,” said Logano after the race. “But it’s also a safety factor and the last thing you want is for a throttle to sink in and get injured.”

To be fair, Sterling Marlin was once caught working on his car at the end of the 2002 Daytona 500. The penalty? Go to the end of the field. And that was just to get the fender off a tire, not as pressing a safety issue as a stuck throttle.

Oops!

The moment that will keep everyone talking during a two-week Olympic break is Kyle Busch’s slide into the outside wall as he led early. Others followed suit due to a wet race track, drivers said they were complaining about multiple laps.

“We got caught by some kind of quick pop-up [shower] there in turn 1, “said NASCAR vice president Scott Miller.” The turn got wet really quickly. ”

It was a small consolation for Busch, who was conservative in post-race commentary but had already made his feelings known on the track. hitting the pace car. Sanctions on this subject should arrive.

Busch and others had a right to be upset. This is the third time in the past eight months that NASCAR officials have botched the weather, which cost Kevin Harvick a 4 Championship berth in Texas last October before failing to shut down the Circuit of the Americas at ‘a series of Noah’s Ark-style showers. They are lucky that no one was hurt.



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