Aric Almirola throws wrench in playoff grid

The call from the tower came on Lap 284.

“Show the 10 car 10 (laps) to go.”

With the waning daylight, the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 fell eight laps short of its scheduled conclusion. Aric Almirola, who took command of the race on Lap 247, was in the catbird seat.

“I felt good about my race car,” he said. “I felt like if it went the distance, we had a good enough car to win. I paced myself there knowing that we had a good car and that we had a big enough lead.”

Now, he just needed to out-run Christopher Bell, who was closing the gap.

“When (Bell) got by (Brad Keselowski),” he said, “I had a 1.8 second lead. I was still pacing myself trying not to run the tires off of it. I got down to about 1.2, one second. I should probably get going here.”

Aric Almirola throws wrench in playoff grid

Then he caught the back of Austin Dillon, who fought tooth and nail to stay on the lead lap by denying him the high line. Which let Bell reel him in, further. With five laps to go, however, Almirola ducked inside Dillon going into Turn 1 and pushed him up the track.

“Once I was able to clear Austin,” he said. “I started putting some good laps back together. I was beating the 20 car about a 10th, 10th-and-a-half a lap.”

It was enough for him to score his third career NASCAR Cup Series victory in 375 starts. Which snapped a 98-race winless streak that dated back to Talladega Superspeedway in October of 2018.

LOUDON, N.H. – JULY 18: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18, 2021, in Loudon, New Hampshire. Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

“This is by far one of my favorite racetracks,” he said. “I love coming up to the New England area and racing. I love this racetrack. I had this race won a couple years ago and I gave it away. I lost it, and I am so glad to win a race here with this race team. God is so good. We’ve been through so much and I’ve just stood the test and kept the faith. The team, everybody, they’ve just been working so hard.

“There have been so many people that have just continued to support us through the crappiest year ever, and, man, this feels so good for them. My pit crew, they did a phenomenal job on pit road. All the guys that work on this car, they just keep fighting. They just keep digging, bringing the best race car they can bring every week and it is no doubt, we have struggled, but, guess what? We’re going playoff racing.”

Furthermore, Almirola’s victory bumps Dillon to the cutoff spot for the playoffs, assuming three new drivers don’t win in the next four races.

Bell brought his car home to his second runner-up finish in the last three races.

“Really proud of everyone on this No. 20 Rheem Pristine Auction Camry,” he said. “We did good. We kind of struggled early and made the car the best it was right there at the end. That’s all you can ask for and felt like we gave him (Almirola) a run for his money, that’s for sure.”

Keselowski — who overtook Almirola shortly after the final pit stop, but lost the lead back to him a few laps later — rounded out the podium.

“The 10 was just lights-out fast that last run, or the last two runs, and just drove by everybody,” he said. “It was pretty amazing. We were good, but we weren’t great, so a solid day.”

Joey Logano overcame a two-lap deficit for an early penalty to finish fourth and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top-five.

Kevin HarvickKyle LarsonRoss ChastainAlex Bowman and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-10.

Aric Almirola throws wrench in playoff grid at Loudon

Race summary

First stage

The mist
LOUDON, N.H. – JULY 18: The pit crew work to repair the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, driven by Kyle Busch during the NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18, 2021, in Loudon, New Hampshire. Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Kyle Busch led the field to green at 3:21 p.m. Drivers radioed in reports of rain on Lap 4 and 5. Thus, race director Jusan Hamilton asked the (NASCAR) spotters around New Hampshire Motor Speedway about the condition of the track. Just as he was about to throw the yellow flag for weather, on Lap 6, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. got loose and spun into the Turn 1 wall, due to a sudden rain shower.

“We started the race under a mist,” Busch said. “It never should have gone green to begin with, but then it kept getting worse and worse lap over lap. The lap before I went into (Turn) 1 and it shoved the nose really bad and I was able to keep it under control. It wasn’t bad enough. The next time I went down there, hell, I lifted at the flag stand – maybe a little past the flag stand, don’t get too dramatic – and just backed it in. We’ve been talking about it for two laps that it was raining. There’s no sense in saying what I want to say, it doesn’t do you any good.”

Following a one hour, 41-minute and 22-second rain delay, Chase Elliott led the field back to green on Lap 24. Aside from two laps under the command of Kurt Busch, he controlled the race from there until Lap 62, when he got loose in Turn 2. Blaney powered inside him down the backstretch to take the lead and win the first stage.

During the stage break, Harvick exited pit road with the race lead.

Second stage

LOUDON, N.H. – JULY 18: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 eCascadia Ford, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18, 2021, in Loudon, New Hampshire. Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images

Aside from two cautions for incident, not much of note happened during much of the second stage. Harvick controlled the race from Lap 80 to Lap 146 (aside from Lap 132, where Hamlin led, based on the position of pit stalls). Shortly after the Lap 145 restart, however, Keselowski overtook him for the lead and won the second stage.

Final stage

Aric Almirola comes to life
LOUDON, N.H. – JULY 18: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Tarkett Ford, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 eCascadia Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18, 2021, in Loudon, New Hampshire. Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images

The intensity picked up early in the final stage, as everyone saw the proverbial writing on the wall, in regards to the remaining sunlight. Blaney passed Keselowski in Turn 3 to retake the lead on Lap 199. Two laps later, Keselowski nudged his teammate in Turn 2, but opted to let him recover and not press the attack.

Almirola worked a few laps to set up Keselowski for a pass, as one does at New Hampshire. On Lap 238, he powered around him on the high line in Turn 2 to take second. He followed suite a few laps later, when he caught up to Blaney. This time, however, Blaney denied him the high line. So he worked the bottom to overtake him for the lead on Lap 247.

Elliott triggered a cycle of green flag pit stops on Lap 248, which set up the run to the finish.

Aric Almirola throws wrench in playoff grid at Loudon

Nuts and bolts

The race lasted three hours, seven minutes and 52 seconds, at an average speed of 122.390 mph. There were 14 lead changes among 10 different drivers, six cautions for 47 laps and a red flag that lasted one hour, 41 minutes and 22 seconds.

Hamlin leaves New Hampshire with a 13-point lead.

NASCAR goes on break for the next two weeks, to accommodate NBC’s broadcasting of the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

TOP IMAGE: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

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