NASCAR Barometer: Almirola Scores Upset New Hampshire Win

NASCAR Barometer: Almirola Scores Upset New Hampshire Win

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Aric Almirola pulled off a stunning upset victory Sunday in a rain-interrupted and daylight shortened visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Stewart Haas Racing driver was already in a must-win situation after a dismal season to date, and that is exactly what happened Sunday. Almirola was one of the fastest cars in the final fuel run, took the lead from Matt DiBenedetto, and stayed out front of a rapidly closing in Christopher Bell in the final laps before NASCAR ended the race early due to darkness. It was a unique set of circumstances that conspired to put the team in Victory Lane, and Almirola became the first Stewart Haas Racing driver to win this season as a result.

The drivers and teams leave New Hampshire with a two-week break before firing up the engines again for back-to-back road course races at Watkins Glen International and a first-time visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's infield circuit. Only three more races remain before the 16-driver playoff field will be finalized with a regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. Tyler Reddick currently holds the 16th spot in the standings with a thin five-point gap to teammate Austin Dillon in 17th.

UPGRADE

Aric Almirola – Almirola's Stewart Haas Racing team gave him one of the fastest cars on track late Sunday, which put him in position to win when NASCAR decided to end the race less than 10 laps short of its scheduled distance. Almirola entered the weekend outside of the top

Aric Almirola pulled off a stunning upset victory Sunday in a rain-interrupted and daylight shortened visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Stewart Haas Racing driver was already in a must-win situation after a dismal season to date, and that is exactly what happened Sunday. Almirola was one of the fastest cars in the final fuel run, took the lead from Matt DiBenedetto, and stayed out front of a rapidly closing in Christopher Bell in the final laps before NASCAR ended the race early due to darkness. It was a unique set of circumstances that conspired to put the team in Victory Lane, and Almirola became the first Stewart Haas Racing driver to win this season as a result.

The drivers and teams leave New Hampshire with a two-week break before firing up the engines again for back-to-back road course races at Watkins Glen International and a first-time visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's infield circuit. Only three more races remain before the 16-driver playoff field will be finalized with a regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. Tyler Reddick currently holds the 16th spot in the standings with a thin five-point gap to teammate Austin Dillon in 17th.

UPGRADE

Aric Almirola – Almirola's Stewart Haas Racing team gave him one of the fastest cars on track late Sunday, which put him in position to win when NASCAR decided to end the race less than 10 laps short of its scheduled distance. Almirola entered the weekend outside of the top 25 in points, but left with a playoff spot firmly in hand with the unlikely win. He and the No. 10 team have struggled much of the 2021 season, scoring just two other top-10 finishes prior to Sunday's victory. It was Almirola's first non-superspeedway victory and came at the perfect time to save an otherwise dismal season. With the biggest pressure off his shoulders, Almirola now heads to Watkins Glen where he has never scored a top-10 finish.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney took the lead from Chase Elliott after just 60 laps into Sunday's Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 and went on to win the stage. That early strength followed Blaney through the afternoon as he went on to finish third in the second stage and then fifth at the end of the day. He led 64 laps in a strong afternoon for Team Penske where all three teammates finished in the top five, but none of them were capable of holding back Almirola or Bell in the final laps. Sunday's top-five was Blaney's fourth in the last five races and demonstrates the consistency he and his team are now discovering just as the playoffs approach. The coming race at Watkins Glen will be a good test for him and the team. They finished fifth there in 2019 and they have a best road course finish of 10th this season.

Brad Keselowski – The announcement that Keselowski would not return to Team Penske in 2022 did not slow him down any in New Hampshire. He won the second stage having led more than 50 laps and finished top among the three teammates, who all placed in the top five. While it was rumored that he would be exiting the organization to add an ownership role to his resume alongside the driver role, the anticipated change has not damped his focus on delivering Penske another championship. Sunday's third-place finish was his second top-five and fourth top-10 from the last five races. At Watkins Glen he has six top-10s from 10 starts, including a ninth-place finish there in 2019. Keselowski's best road-course finish this season was on Daytona's road course where he finished fifth.

Christopher Bell – Bell's performance Sunday at New Hampshire was the best indication yet that his win earlier this season was no anomaly. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won Saturday in the Xfinity Series for the third consecutive time at the track and then he went on to narrowly lose out to Almirola on Sunday when NASCAR ended the race eight laps early. Bell had been closing in on the No. 10 machine, and the final eight laps may have been enough for Bell to grab his second win of the season. Being one of 13 race winners so far this season is enough to ensure Bell will compete for this year's title, however. Up next is another road course, where Bell has been at his best. He was second at Road America and won at Daytona.

Ross Chastain – One week after helping teammate Kurt Busch score a win and secure a playoff spot, Chastain found himself back among the top 10 finishers. His eighth-place run Sunday at New Hampshire was his sixth top-10 of the season and second in the last three races. The team has improved their finishes as the season has progressed and now just needs to find some consistency from week to week. After picking up three top-10 finishes on road courses this season, the upcoming trip to Watkins Glen could be a chance to find that consistency, too. It will be his first visit to Watkins Glen with Chip Ganassi Racing, which should open the door for a personal best at the circuit.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch – Busch completed just eight laps Sunday in New Hampshire. The pole sitter had been on a run of four consecutive race finishes of third or better but had the misfortune of being the first driver to head into a wet turn 1, losing control and smacking the outside wall. Busch said after the incident that the race should not have been started. NASCAR's decision to go ahead with the initial green flag upended the race, and left Busch and team packing up and leaving with a damaged machine. The former champion now faces a long, two-week wait to get back on track and put Sunday's frustration behind him. He will look forward to returning to Watkins Glen, where he has two prior victories.

Austin Dillon Almirola's New Hampshire victory wasn't good news for Dillon. A week ago the Richard Childress Racing driver was tossed into a points battle with teammate Tyler Reddick when Kurt Busch won, pushing the teammates in the final two playoff positions. Almirola's win just one week later saw him leapfrog the pair in the standings, too. Finishing behind Reddick and missing out on stage points on Sunday left Dillon out of the playoff picture despite him having been among the playoff positions for most of the season. He has work to do to overcome the five-point deficit to his teammate, and RCR teammates battling one another for the final playoff spot is a tough situation with four regular season races remaining.

Martin Truex Jr. – Like his teammate, Truex had the misfortune of being one of the first drivers to head full-speed into a wet turn 1 and lose control. The wet surface caused multiple cars to lose control, and Truex was one of the drivers to come away with the most damage. As the team worked to make repairs, they had already lost one of their best chances to fight for a win. After spending multiple weeks working back to top-10 finishes, the decision to start the race with the threat of rain left Truex back in 12th, which was his lowest finish since the first of the Pocono double-header races. A bright spot awaits Truex after the two-week break, however. Another roadcourse visit could be the tonic he needs to put his New Hampshire woes behind him quickly.

Chris Buescher – Buescher's playoff hopes took another beating Sunday in New Hampshire. One week after being knocked out of the playoff positions with Kurt Busch's Atlanta win, Buescher was caught up in Bubba Wallace's spin roughly halfway through the race. Buescher was racing underneath Wallace coming off of the turn when Wallace's car spun to the inside, pushing Buescher into the inside wall. The Roush Fenway Racing driver finished three laps behind the leaders in 29th following the incident. Buescher has now not had a top-15 finish since Charlotte and faces a 121-point gap to the top 16 in points. He is in a must-win situation to regain a spot in the playoffs.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Joey Logano – Aside from Almirola's victory, Logano and the No. 22 team's comeback from a two-lap penalty to finish fourth may have been the biggest surprise of the race. Under the red flag, Logano's team put a camera under the hood to identify a linkage issue that was affecting his throttle. Logano and the team characterized the infraction as a safety issue, but NASCAR deemed taking the photos a violation of the rule that bans working on cars while under red-flag conditions. The No. 22 served the punishment and then impressively battled back to join his Penske teammates in the top five finishing positions, leaving us to wonder what might have been possible without the penalty. Up next is Watkins Glen where Logano has one victory.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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