From the time he was turned to start The Big One at the Daytona 500, the 2021 season had been nothing short of a nightmare for Aric Almirola. Entering Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Almirola was 27th in the points standings with only two top 10 finishes along with five DNFs due to crashes. And now, it doesn't matter - Aric Almirola is in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
In a stunning development, Aric Almirola turned it on over the final green flag run of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, powering his way to the lead and then holding off Christopher Bell to take the checkered flag. Almirola's win is the third of his Cup career, and snaps a 98-race winless streak dating back to Talladega in the Fall of 2018.
Almirola's victory completely upends the NASCAR Playoffs grid, as he jumps from 27th in points all the way into a Playoff spot. Almirola's victory leaves three spots left for drivers seeking to make the playoffs on points, and bumps Austin Dillon below the cut line by five points over Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick.
Unofficial Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 Top 10
1. #10 - Aric Almirola
2. #20 - Christopher Bell
3. #2 - Brad Keselowski
4. #22 - Joey Logano
5. #12 - Ryan Blaney
6. #4 - Kevin Harvick
7. #5 - Kyle Larson
8. #42 - Ross Chastain
9. #48 - Alex Bowman
10. #11 - Denny Hamlin
Despite an awful season so far, Almirola stated post-race that he felt at the start of the day that he could take the checkered flag. While Almirola had never won on a non-superspeedway in his Cup career, he had appeared to be well on his way to victory at New Hampshire in 2018 before an ill-timed late race caution cost him the win.
"This is by far one of my favorite racetracks. 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," Almirola told NBC Sports. "And I am so glad to win a race here with this race team. God is so good, man. 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's been so many people that have just continued to support us through, like, the crappiest year ever. Man, this feels so good for them. My pit crew 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 racecar they can bring every week.
"And it is no doubt we have struggled. But guess what? We're going Playoff racing!"
The groundwork for a surprise winner was laid in the early laps of the race, when deteriorating weather conditions created a disaster at the front of the field. After rain hit the speedway earlier in the day, Sunday's race began in overcast conditions with the threat of rain in the area. Rain hit the speedway shortly after the green flag, and on lap 6, a wet racing surface sent Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. crashing out of first and second as others slid and spun behind them.
Busch, who finished last at New Hampshire for the second year in a row, practiced great restraint in expressing his displeasure with how NASCAR handled the situation.
"We'd been talking about it for two laps that it was raining," Busch told NBC Sports. "There's no sense in saying what I want to say. It doesn't do you any good."
After a rain delay of nearly two hours, the operations of the race were altered by the length of the race bordering on sunset. With no lights at New Hampshire and darkness impending, NASCAR shortened the race within the final 20 laps, giving the field the 10 to go signal with just under 20 to go. The race ended eight laps shy of the scheduled distance, having been shortened to 293 laps from the originally scheduled 301.
With 13 different drivers now having won a race and staked their claim to the playoff grid, only Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Tyler Reddick are on the plus side of the cut line among those who have yet to win. All of the bubble drivers will have several weeks to process their situation, as a two week summer break will take place with four races remaining in the regular season. The Cup Series' next race will be at Watkins Glen International on August 8.