In a race mired with precipitation, an early accident eliminating two former Cup champions and a 10-lap reduction due to darkened skies, Aric Almirola erased his difficult regular-season stretch by scoring an upset win in the weather-shortened Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the 50th event at the Magic Mile, on Sunday, July 18.
The Tampa, Florida, native capitalized late to lead twice for 25 laps and fend off a hard-charging Christopher Bell to return to Victory Lane in the NASCAR Cup Series following a 98-race winless drought.
The starting lineup was based on a performance metric formula, weighing the driver’s and owner’s results from a previous Cup event, the owner points position and the fastest lap recorded from a previous Cup race. With that, Kyle Busch started on pole position and was joined on the front row with teammate Martin Truex Jr.
Prior to the event, Quin Houff, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece and BJ McLeod dropped to the rear of the field due to multiple pre-race inspection issues. Bubba Wallace also started at the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments.
When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Kyle Busch launched his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry ahead of teammate Truex and the field through the first two turns.
With the field fanning out to two lanes through the backstretch, Kyle Busch led the first lap and was able to retain the lead despite an early challenge from teammate Truex. Behind, Chase Elliott was in third followed by Kurt Busch, winner of last weekend’s Cup event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Alex Bowman. Denny Hamlin, the regular-season points leader, settled in sixth ahead of Ryan Blaney and Christopher Bell, winner of Saturday’s Xfinity event at New Hampshire.
On the fifth lap, the caution flew when both Kyle Busch and Truex, the two leaders, wrecked in Turn 1 after both got loose entering the turn due to the slick conditions on the track as a result of rain falling on the track. Behind, Hamlin got loose while battling Bowman and spun, though he continued without sustaining any serious damage. While Hamlin remained on the track, Busch and Truex pitted to have their respective Toyota Camrys assessed for the damage.
Not long after, the field was brought to pit road and the race was red-flagged on the eighth lap as the rain picked up around the circuit and the cloudy skies. At the time of the caution and delay, Elliott emerged as the leader followed by Kurt Busch, Bowman, Bell and Ryan Blaney while Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Tyler Reddick, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick were in the top 10.
During the delay, Kyle Busch and his crew retired from the event due to the damage on the car.
“We started the race under a mist,” Kyle Busch said on NBCSN. “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. We’re done, we’re going home. It’s over. There’s no fixing that thing.”
Nearly two hours later amid the track-drying process, the red flag was lifted and the field returned to the track under the competition caution, which was initially scheduled for Lap 30. Prior to the start, NASCAR announced that Joey Logano, who pitted under the caution period while the pit road was closed, will be held two laps on pit road due to his crew working on the car during the red flag period.
Under caution, some led by Hamlin pitted while the rest led by Elliott pitted. During the pit stops, Ryan Preece was penalized for speeding while exiting pit road. Meanwhile, Truex was able to remain in the race following repairs to his No. 19 Reser’s Toyota Camry from his pit crew.
When the race restarted on green on Lap 23, Elliott was challenged by Kurt Busch for the lead, which the latter succeeded the following lap. Two laps later, however, Elliott returned the favor entering the backstretch and reassumed the lead as Christopher Bell joined the party.
By Lap 30, Elliott was leading by nearly half a second over Bell, who was followed by Blaney, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski. Reddick was in sixth followed by Bowman, Chastain, Larson and Harvick.
A few laps later, the caution returned due to rookie Anthony Alfredo spinning in Turn 4 following contact with Bubba Wallace. Under caution, some like Bowman, Larson, William Byron, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher, rookie Chase Briscoe and Daniel Suarez pitted while the rest led by Elliott remained on the track.
When the race restarted on Lap 38, Elliott and Bell battled for the lead for one full lap until Elliott’s No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE managed to clear Bell’s No. 20 Rheem Toyota Camry through Turns 1 and 2. Behind, Cody Ware spun in Turn 2, but the race remained under green.
As the field fanned out and the competitors battled for positions, Team Penske’s Blaney and Keselowski were in third and fourth followed by Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick.
On Lap 42, Blaney overtook Bell for the runner-up spot. By then, Harvick moved into the top five while Kurt Busch fell back to sixth ahead of Reddick and Matt DiBenedetto.
Through the first 50 laps of the event, Elliott was leading by nearly half a second over Blaney while Bell, Keselowski and Harvick were in the top five. Reddick was in sixth followed by Chastain, DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch and Hamlin. Austin Dillon was in 12th behind Cole Custer, teammates Bowman, Byron and Larson were in 14th, 15th and 16th, Aric Almirola was in 19th in front of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Truex was mired back in 22nd, Ryan Newman and Briscoe were in 24th and 25th ahead of Wallace and Daniel Suarez was in 27th. Logano, meanwhile, was in 33rd and a lap behind.
By Lap 60, Elliott continued to lead by a tenth of a second over Blaney. Behind, Keselowski moved up to third while Bell and Harvick battled for fourth ahead of Tyler Reddick.
Two laps later, Blaney overtook Elliott for the top spot as he became the fourth different leader of the race. In the ensuing laps, Blaney started to extend his advantage to more than a second.
Amid the overcast weather and the bizarre start, Blaney was able to remain in the lead with a comfortable advantage and claim the first stage victory on Lap 75, thus claiming his fourth stage victory of 2021. Behind, Keselowski prevailed over a late battle with Elliott to settle in second while Harvick and Reddick were scored in the top five. Scored in the top 10 were Bell, Hamlin, Chastain, DiBenedetto and Larson.
Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Harvick exited with the lead followed by Hamlin, Reddick, Keselowski, Elliott and Blaney.
The second stage started on Lap 82 with Harvick and Hamlin on the front row. At the start, Harvick rocketed away from the field on the outside lane while Hamlin struggled to launch on the inside lane, which allowed Reddick to move into second place and the field to stack up and fan out to multiple lanes through the first two turns.
The following lap, Elliott battled Reddick for the runner-up spot while Hamlin was locked in a battle with Keselowski for fourth. Meanwhile, Harvick was out in front by more than half a second.
By Lap 90, Harvick was leading by more than a second over Elliott while Keselowski, Reddick and Hamlin were in the top five. Blaney was mired back in sixth followed by Larson, Chastain, Bell and Almirola.
At the Lap 100 mark, Harvick remained as the leader by more than one second over Elliott while third-place Keselowski was trailing by less than three seconds. Hamlin retained fourth place ahead of Blaney, Reddick, Chastain, Larson, Almirola and Bell. Bowman was in 11th ahead of Kurt Busch, DiBenedetto, Custer and Stenhouse. Byron was in 16th followed by Truex and Austin Dillon, Wallace was in 19th ahead of Chris Buescher, Newman was in 21st ahead of Suarez and Erik Jones, Michael McDowell was in 25th behind Ryan Preece and Briscoe was back in 29th. Logano, meanwhile, was in 30th and still a lap behind.
Ten laps later, Harvick continued to lead by more than a second over Elliott and nearly three seconds over Keselowski, who had Hamlin challenging him for a top-three spot. Another 10 laps later, Harvick stabilized his advantage to eight-tenths of a second over Elliott and more than three seconds over the new third-place competitor, Hamlin.
On Lap 128, the caution flew due to Quin Houff spinning and making contact with the Turn 3 outside wall following contact with Ryan Newman. At the time of caution, Austin Dillon pitted despite pit road being closed at the time of his service.
Under caution, the leaders returned to pit road and Harvick retained the lead after exiting pit road ahead of Hamlin, Keselowski, Elliott and Almirola. During the pit stops, Blaney, who dropped from first to fifth during the first stage caution period, dropped from fifth to ninth under the recent caution.
When the race restarted under green on Lap 135, Harvick and Hamlin, both of whom were seeking their first victory of the season, pulled ahead while Almirola challenged Keselowski for third place.
A lap later, a three-wide battle ensued between Almirola, Elliott and Larson through Turns 1 and 2 before Larson prevailed ahead of the two for fourth place entering Turn 3. Behind, Blaney, Chastain and Bell battled for seventh while Harvick retained the lead ahead of Hamlin.
Shortly after, the caution returned due to a two-car spin through the backstretch involving Wallace and Chris Buescher. In the midst of the incident and the caution, Logano received another free pass to return to the lead lap.
When the race restarted on Lap 144, Harvick received another strong start to muscle away with the lead ahead of Keselowski while Hamlin was mired back in third ahead of the field after he struggled at the start.
Two laps later, Keselowski, sporting a sleek blue and black scheme to his No. 2 eCascadia Ford Mustang, took over the lead ahead of Harvick and Hamlin.
By Lap 150 and right at the halfway mark, Keselowski was leading by more than a second over Harvick while Hamlin, Blaney and Almirola were in the top five. Scored in the top 10 were Elliott, Larson, Chastain, Reddick and Bell.
By Lap 175, Keselowski continued to lead by less than two seconds over Harvick, with Blaney and Hamlin in third and fourth. Almirola, meanwhile, continued to run in fifth ahead of Elliott.
While Harvick started to close back in on Keselowski for the lead, Keselowski was able to retain a reasonable advantage over Harvick and claim his second stage victory of the season after winning the second stage on Lap 185. Harvick settled in second followed Blaney, Hamlin, Almirola, Elliott, Larson, Reddick, Chastain and Kurt Busch.
Under the stage break, the leaders returned to pit road and Keselowski retained the lead after exiting with the lead followed by Harvick, Blaney, Almirola, Larson and Hamlin. Following the pit stops, however, Hamlin returned to pit road due to a missing lug nut.
With 109 laps remaining and the skies above the track darkening, the final stage started as teammates Keselowski and Blaney started on the front row. At the start, Keselowski peaked ahead of Blaney and Harvick to retain the lead. While Penske’s Keselowski and Blaney battled for the lead, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick retained third ahead of teammate Almirola, Larson, Bell and Chastain.
Six laps later, Blaney, who kept teammate Keselowski in his sights, took the lead, though Keselowski refused to give in and with a potential dark weather-ending race looming.
Down to the final 100 laps of the event, teammates Blaney and Keselowski battled for the top spot while Harvick narrowed the deficit to half a second. Meanwhile, Logano, who was two laps behind earlier in the race, was in 10th.
Under the final 100 laps, both Blaney and Keselowski refused to surrender as they continued to battle intensely for the lead through every turn and corner, but with neither prevailing over the other. Harvick, meanwhile, continued to close in behind the two Penske Ford competitors.
With 90 laps remaining, the top-three competitors were separated by six-tenths of a second as Blaney continued to lead by less than half a second over teammate Keselowski and six-tenths of a second over Harvick. Not far behind, Almirola was behind by more than a second while Larson was in fifth. Logano, meanwhile, was in eighth.
Ten laps later, Blaney, who earlier prevailed over his intense battle with teammate Keselowski, was ahead by less than nine-tenths of a second over Keselowski. Behind, Almirola moved up to third place ahead of teammate Harvick while Larson remained in fifth. Logano was up in seventh, Reddick was in ninth ahead of Bowman, Kurt Busch and Elliott were back in 13th and 14th, Truex was in 16th and Hamlin was mired back in 18th in between William Byron and Daniel Suarez.
Another five laps later, the advantage for Blaney over teammate Keselowski grew to more than a second while third-place Almirola was trailing by two seconds.
Under the final 65 laps of the event, Almirola overtook Keselowski for the runner-up spot while Blaney continued to lead by more than a second. Harvick, meanwhile, was more than three seconds behind while Larson remained in fifth, but behind by less than five seconds.
Approaching the final 60 laps of the event, Almirola caught Blaney and started to challenge him for the lead. Despite repeated attempts from Almirola, Blaney managed to remain in front of Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang.
Then with 55 laps remaining, Almirola emerged with the lead following a pass on Blaney through Turns 2 and 3 before clearing him for good in Turn 4.
Just then, pit stops under green ensued as Elliott pitted along with Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch Keselowski, Newman and others. Harvick also pitted along with Bell, Logano, Larson, Blaney and race leader Almirola.
Under the final 45 laps of the event and with most of the leaders having made a pit stop, DiBenedetto, who has yet to pit, was leading ahead of Byron and Keselowski, who had fresh tires and enough fuel to the finish. Almirola was mired back in fourth while Wallace was in fifth ahead of Bell.
Not long after, Almirola overtook Keselowski for third place, but he was more than 18 seconds behind race leader DiBenedetto.
With 36 laps remaining, Almirola overtook Byron for the runner-up spot while DiBenedetto continued to lead by more than 13 seconds. Behind, Keselowski and Bell overtook Byron for spots in the top five while Blaney was in sixth ahead of Harvick, Logano, Larson and Reddick.
Down to the final 30 laps of the event, DiBenedetto, who drives for the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team but has no current racing plans established for 2022, continued to lead by less than six seconds over a hard-charging Almirola. Bell, meanwhile, was in third, less than eight seconds behind, while Keselowski and Blaney were in the top five.
Three laps later, DiBenedetto, who was aiming for a shortened event and for his first Cup victory, surrendered the lead to pit for two tires and fuel. With DiBenedetto out of contention, Almirola returned to the lead with Bell behind by less than two seconds.
With 20 laps remaining, Almirola was leading by more than a second over Bell. Keselowski remained in third while Blaney and Harvick battled for fourth. DiBenedetto, meanwhile, was in 13th.
Just then, NASCAR declared that the event will be shortened to a final 10-lap dash to the checkered flag due to darkness looming around the track and with no lights installed around the Magic Mile. By then, Almirola continued to lead by more than a second over Bell with third-place Keselowski trailing by more than four seconds as the race remained under green.
Down to the final five laps of the event, Almirola, who was struggling to lap Austin Dillon, was leading by more than six-tenths of a second over a hard-charging Bell. Meanwhile, Logano was up in fourth ahead of teammate Blaney and Harvick.
When the final lap of the darkened event started, Almirola continued to lead by eight-tenths of a second over Bell. Despite Bell’s final lap effort for the win, Almirola remained ahead and he was able to come back around to claim his first checkered flag in more than two seasons.
With the win, Almirola, who came into the event in 27th place in the regular-season standings and a long shot in the Playoff battle, scored his third NASCAR Cup Series career victory and he achieved his first win in NASCAR’s premier series since October 2018 at Talladega Superspeedway. In addition, he became the 13th different competitor to be guaranteed a spot in the 2021 Cup Playoffs based off of winning throughout the regular-season stretch and he recorded the first victory of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing.
“This is by far one of my favorite racetracks,” Almirola said on NBCSN. “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!”
Bell, who was aiming for a weekend sweep after winning Saturday’s Xfinity event at New Hampshire, settled in second place for his second runner-up result in three weeks.
“I didn’t know how may laps [NASCAR] cut it short, but definitely whenever I saw the board and saw that we were eight laps short, it stings man,” Bell said. “I felt like I probably had a little better pace than [Almirola] and I was able to get to him. I know lapped cars were giving him a bad time, but I was able to get to him. It was going to be a heck of a race, but really proud of everyone on this Rheem Pristine Auction Camry. They did really good. Everyone on this 20 crew, we didn’t start out the greatest and then we were really good, probably the best we were all day right there at the end of the race. That’s all you can ask for is to have a shot at it and just wish we had eight more laps.”
Keselowski, who led 53 laps, came home in third place followed by teammates Logano, who rallied from two laps behind, and Blaney, who led 64 laps.
Harvick, who led 66 laps, ended up in sixth followed by Larson, Chastain, Bowman and Hamlin.
DiBenedetto, who pitted late for fuel, settled in 11th in front of Truex, Reddick, Cole Custer and Stenhouse. Kurt Busch came home in 16th, Elliott ended up in 18th behind Austin Dillon, Byron finished 21st behind Daniel Suarez, Wallace ended up in 26th behind Michael McDowell and rookie Chase Briscoe finished 27th.
There were 14 lead changes for 10 different leaders. The race featured six cautions for 47 laps.
With four races remaining until the 2021 Cup Playoffs commences, Denny Hamlin continues to lead the regular-season standings by 13 points over Kyle Larson. Currently, 13 competitors (Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, William Byron, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell) are guaranteed Playoff spots based on winning at least once throughout the regular season. Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick occupy the remaining three vacant spots to the Playoffs as winless competitors, with Reddick ahead by five points over teammate Austin Dillon, 121 over Chris Buescher, 143 over Matt DiBenedetto, 144 over Ross Chastain, 170 over Bubba Wallace, 172 over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and 195 over Daniel Suarez.
1. Aric Almirola, 25 laps led
2. Christopher Bell
3. Brad Keselowski, 53 laps led, Stage 2 winner
4. Joey Logano
5. Ryan Blaney, 64 laps led, Stage 1 winner
6. Kevin Harvick, 66 laps led
7. Kyle Larson
8. Ross Chastain, three laps led
9. Alex Bowman
10. Denny Hamlin, one lap led
11. Matt DiBenedetto, 20 laps led
12. Martin Truex Jr.
13. Tyler Reddick
14. Cole Custer
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
16. Kurt Busch, one lap down
17. Austin Dillon, one lap down
18. Chase Elliott, one lap down, 53 laps led
19. Erik Jones, one lap down
20. Daniel Suarez, one lap down
21. William Byron, one lap down
22. Ryan Preece, one lap down
23. Corey LaJoie, one lap down
24. Ryan Newman, one lap down
25. Michael McDowell, one lap down
26. Bubba Wallace, one lap down
27. Chase Briscoe, two laps down
28. Justin Haley, two laps down
29. Chris Buescher, three laps down
30. BJ McLeod, five laps down
31. Cody Ware, eight laps down
32. Anthony Alfredo, eight laps down
33. Garrett Smithley, 10 laps down
34. Josh Bilicki, 13 laps down
35. Quin Houff – OUT, Accident
36. James Davison – OUT, Clutch
37. Kyle Busch – OUT, Accident
The NASCAR Cup Series will be taking the next two weekends off for the Tokyo Summer Olympics before returning to action at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, August 8, which marks the series’ fifth road course event of 2021. The event is scheduled to occur at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN.