NASCAR: Almirola advances in playoffs with Talladega win
Aric Almirola capped an absolute Stewart-Haas Racing rout at Talladega Superspeedway with an overtime victory that earned him an automatic berth into the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs.
It also snapped a 149-race losing streak for Almirola and atoned for his oh-so-close moment in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“I just love racing at Talladega and I came to the track with the mindset that we were going to go race and we were going to go give them hell, and if we wrecked, we wrecked,” Almirola said. “And if we win, we win. And we won. What a cool time to do it, too.”
More important, it showed that SHR arrived at Talladega prepared to work as a four-car team and ensure one of its drivers made it to victory lane.
The SHR Fords were untouchable all weekend. They swept qualifying, won every stage of Sunday’s race and used teamwork to pull away from the field. As the laps wound down, Kurt Busch led his three teammates in a straight line and pulled the train away from the pack, which couldn’t organize itself behind the SHR group to mount any sort of challenge.
But the dynamics changed when Alex Bowman spun with three laps remaining to bring out an ill-timed caution.
Now the race was going to overtime, and the SHR cars didn’t have enough gas for the extra laps.
First Busch’s fuel light began to flicker. Then Kevin Harvick got the same warning. As the field roared to the green flag, Harvick forfeited a shot at victory by pulling off the track to get enough gas to make it to the finish.
Busch stayed out as the leader with Almirola and Clint Bowyer looking for a slot to slip past him for the victory. Then Busch ran out of gas headed to the checkered flag and Almirola zipped by for his first victory of the season, first since joining SHR this year as the replacement for Danica Patrick, and first since the rain-shortened Daytona race in July 2014. It was the second Cup victory of his career.
Almirola was also leading on the final lap in overtime of the season-opening Daytona 500 until he was wrecked by winner Austin Dillon.
Almirola thought he had last week’s race at Dover won until a caution triggered by teammate Bowyer ruined his shot at the victory. A week later, he got his checkered flag and his stamp into the round of eight into the playoffs.
“Four or five times this year I feel like we’ve had a shot to win and haven’t been able to seal the deal,” Almirola said.
Bowyer finished second, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in a Ford from Roush Fenway Racing.
Busch faded to 14th and Harvick wound up 28th — a disappointing end because SHR was poised for a 1-2-3-4 finish before the race went to overtime. But the team understood how dominant it had been all day and fortunate it was to leave Talladega with one driver locked into the next round of the playoffs and the other three still in contention.
The playoff field will be trimmed from 12 drivers to eight after next week’s race at Kansas Speedway.
“Mine sputtered there on the fuel pressure and it dropped down in the red and they did the right thing of coming in and pitting and not taking a chance,” Harvick said. “You just need to put yourself in a position to where you’re good for next week, just glad that one of our cars won, and happy for Aric.”
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