NASCAR: Daytona 500-Qaulifying
USATSI

As Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race played out, you could tell New Hampshire Motor Speedway was setting up for something weird. There was a nearly two-hour rain delay after Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Jr. and others wiped out on a wet surface entering turn 1.

With no lights at the track, officials were forced to call the race eight laps early. 

But Aric Almirola winning. Aric Almirola? Even the driver himself admitted the magnitude of the upset. 

"Nobody should have thought that we were going to win," Almirola said. "Coming into this race we never really gave anybody a reason to pick us, to be completely honest." 

In 373 career NASCAR Cup Series starts, Almirola had never won outside the big pack racing tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. He'd suffered through a miserable year, posting just two top-10 finishes and entering New Hampshire 27th in the standings. 

Some 232 points behind the playoff cutline, Almirola's future with Stewart-Haas Racing looked shaky. He had five DNFs for crashes in the first 13 races, as many as the past two years combined. 

But the 37-year-old veteran never stopped believing, circling New Hampshire on the calendar for months. He had this race won three years ago only to spin his tires on a late restart, winding up third. 

He wouldn't make the same mistake twice, marching forward quietly from 22nd as opportunity knocked. Those early wrecks by Busch and Truex knocked out two favorites while Hendrick Motorsports struggled at a track they haven't won at since 2012. Fords had won three straight races at NHMS and the manufacturer went straight to the front. It looked like Almirola's teammate Kevin Harvick was in position to make it four. 

But Almirola just kept creeping up the leaderboard. Fifth at the end of stage two, a great long-run car worked perfect for the final 101 laps that ran caution free. One by one, he picked off Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney -- some of the best in the business. 

"I knew if we could get far enough up front to where I could just hold my own for 10 laps," he said. "We would have a shot to go drive to the front and take the lead." 

It's exactly what happened, leaving the only shaky moments down the stretch when NASCAR would call the race with darkness approaching. Matt DiBenedetto stretched his fuel to try and catch a break, but the sun just didn't go down fast enough. 

"Until the 21 pitted, I could see perfectly," Almirola joked. "As soon as the 21 pitted, it got really dark really quick." 

Nothing could darken Almirola's mood after the most surprising win of the year (William Hill Sportsbook had him at 75/1 odds). The first SHR driver to clinch a playoff spot might have earned another contract extension with sponsor Smithfield backing him every step of the way. 

"Unfortunately, I can't give them the world," he said. "But I can give them a race win every once in a while, and today, we were able to do that." 

Traffic Report

Green: Christopher Bell -- The Joe Gibbs Racing skies parted to give Bell a runner-up finish, his second in the past three weeks. February's Daytona road course winner is building playoff momentum at the right time with equipment good enough to challenge the Hendrick quartet. 

Yellow: Kevin Harvick/Denny Hamlin -- It was quite a turn of events for Harvick, who led a season-high 66 laps and put himself in position to win. Instead, he watched teammate Almirola secure the playoff spot while a sixth-place finish did him little good. Hamlin spun out early in the rain and had another underwhelming performance, coming home 10th. 

Harvick and Hamlin combined to win a NASCAR-best 16 of 36 races last year. This time around? They're a combined 0-for-44 and are two of only three winless drivers left with a postseason spot. A wacky slate of first-time winners in the final four races could TKO them both. 

Red: Austin Dillon -- Dillon started Sunday 104 points above the playoff cutline. He ended it five points below, forced to chase teammate Tyler Reddick for the final spot in the family-owned Richard Childress Racing program. How's that to up internal tension?  

Seven straight races outside the top 10 haven't helped and a late move to block Almirola while getting lapped, sensing a postseason spot was slipping away made him look desperate. 

Speeding Ticket: Joey Logano -- While the race was stopped for rain, Logano's crew noticed a piece of rubber stuck in the throttle linkage. Driver and team claimed they chose to take a picture with a camera phone in order to fix it once the race got underway.  

This clip seems to tell a different story. Judge for yourself. 

NASCAR officials came down hard, imposing a two-lap penalty for the crew working under red-flag conditions. It killed Logano's afternoon with what arguably was the fastest car in the race-- though he eventually made up both laps and charged up to fourth by the finish. 

"I understand the rules are the rules," Logano said after the race. "But it's also a safety factor and the last thing you want is a throttle to stick and get hurt." 

To be fair, Sterling Marlin was once caught working on his car at the end of the 2002 Daytona 500. The penalty? Going to the tail end of the field. And that was just to pull the fender out from a tire, not as pressing a safety concern as a stuck throttle.  

Oops!

The moment that will leave everyone talking through a two-week Olympic break is Kyle Busch's slide into the outside wall while leading early. Others followed suit due to a wet racetrack drivers said they'd been complaining about for multiple laps. 

"We got caught out by kind of a quick sort of pop-up [shower] there in turn 1," said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Scott Miller. "The corner got wet really quick." 

It was small consolation for Busch, who was conservative in post-race comments but had already made his feelings known on track by hitting the pace car. Penalties on that should be forthcoming. 

Busch and others had a right to be upset. It's the third time in the past eight months NASCAR officials have botched the weather, costing Kevin Harvick a Championship 4 spot at Texas last October before failing to stop Circuit of the Americas during a Noah's Ark-style series of downpours. They're lucky no one got hurt.