Aric Almirola’s season of disappointment took a big-time turn for the better on Sunday when he won the darkness-shortened, weather-disrupted Foxwoods Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The victory in the race, which was shortened from 301 to 293 laps because of darkness, was Almirola’s first of the season and puts him into the playoffs, a position that he was in huge danger of missing when he arrived at the New Hampshire mile.
The finish was just his second in the top five all season. He entered the race 27th in points and with just five races remaining before the start of the 16-driver, 10-race playoffs.
Almirola also gave Stewart-Haas Motorsports its first victory of the season. It was the fourth of his career.
A year ago, Almirola had six top-five finishes and 18 top-10s in making the playoffs on points.
Finishing second was Christopher Bell of Team Penske, who made a race of it when Almirola got stuck in traffic with under 10 laps to go. The margin of victory was .69 seconds.
Third was Brad Keselowski of Team Penske.
His teammate Joey Logano, who survived a two-lap penalty early in the race, finished fourth.
Ryan Blaney of the Penske team was fifth while Kevin Harvick, looking for his first win of the season, was sixth after leading a race-best 66 laps.
Trouble visited the race on Lap 6 when NASCAR officials allowed the race to proceed despite rain falling. Both leader Kyle Busch and second place Martin Truex, Jr., – who are teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing – spun on the wet track. Several other cars, including that of JGR’s Denny Hamlin, spun further back in the field.
The car of Busch, which started on the pole, suffered major damage from hitting the wall and he was out of the race.
Officials threw the caution flag and then the red flag to stop the race.
“We started the race under a mist,” Busch, who is coming off a runner-up finish to his brother Kurt a week ago at Atlanta, said. “It never should have went green to begin with. But then it kept getting worse and worse. The lap before (the spins), I went into (Turn) 1 and it shoved the nose really bad and I was able to keep it under control.
“We’d been talking about it for two laps that it was raining. No sense in saying what I want to say. It doesn’t do you any good. We’re done. We’re going home.”
Truex, who suffered less damage than Busch, said, “I hollered on the radio (to NASCAR officials) that the track is wet. Like wet, wet.”
Said Denny Hamlin, whose car suffered minor damage, “You just rely on NASCAR to do their part and that is allowing the corner spotters to tell them when the surface is unsafe or for debris, rain, whatever it is.”
Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR, said there was a mist falling in the laps leading up to the wreck and that the rain picked up. But, “just as (the starter) was about to put out the yellow, we looked down and the 18 car (Busch) was already getting loose. The track got slick in a hurry.”
The race resumed at about 5:30 p.m. Eastern with Chase Elliott in the lead.
The series will take the next two weekends off before returning to the road course at Watkins Glen on Aug. 8.
–Field Level Media