Aric Almirola finds long-awaited redemption with Talladega win

Aric Almirola finds long-awaited redemption with Talladega win

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TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 14: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Bacon for Life Ford, celebrates after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 14, 2018 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service

TALLADEGA, AL – OCTOBER 13: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Bacon for Life Ford, practices for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 13, 2018 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Aric Almirola has been tantalizingly close to winning this season, only to come up empty.

On Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, he finally got to light the victory cigar.

When the No. 41 Ford of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch lost fuel pressure on the final lap of the 1000Bulbs.com 500, Almirola was there to collect his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory since 2014 and clinch a spot in the Round of 8 in the series Playoffs.

Almirola’s second career victory—and his first in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford—came one week after a late caution at Dover robbed him of a chance to win.

At the end of a race in which the Stewart-Haas cars achieved mind-bending dominance at NASCAR’s biggest track, Almirola finished .105 seconds ahead of teammate Clint Bowyer, who, coincidentally, caused the telltale caution at Dover—one that mirrored a similar situation at New Hampshire in July.

“This is awesome! At Talladega!” Almirola exulted after taking the checkered flag. “I’ve been so close so many times this year. Four or five times this year, I feel like we’ve had a shot to win, and I haven’t been able to seal the deal… I feel like I’ve let (the team) down so many times, because we’ve had so many opportunities to win and haven’t done it…

“We come here, a place that I love—I won an Xfinity race here last year. I just love racing at Talladega, and I came here with the mind-set that we were going to go give ‘em hell, and if we wreck, we wreck, and if we win, we win. And we won!”

Led by Busch, the four Stewart-Haas drivers swept the top four starting positions in Saturday’s knockout qualifying session. But that was just the beginning. Busch won the first stage of Sunday’s race, followed by Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Almirola.

It was more of the same in Stage 2, with Harvick taking the green/checkers ahead of Bowyer, Busch and Almirola. Harvick scored enough stage points to clinch a spot in the Round of 8 of the Cup Playoffs.

“This was an incredible race for us,” Almirola said. “We were so committed to each other and so organized, and nobody in the field could touch us. It was us against the field. What an impressive run. I’m just proud to be the one on top today.”

The SHR drivers were running 1-2-3-4 with three laps left when Playoff driver Alex Bowman lost control of his No. 88 Chevrolet in Turn 4 to cause the eighth caution of the afternoon.

The yellow put Harvick and fellow Playoff drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney in dire straits with respect to fuel, and all three came to pit road to gas up before the final restart in overtime on Lap 192. Busch held the lead until his car sputtered in Turn 4 on the final lap–after a multicar wreck in Turn 1 damaged the cars of Playoff drivers Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr.

Almirola surged into the lead and took the checkered flag, leading his only lap of the afternoon.

With the runner-up finish, Bowyer climbed from outside the Round of 8 cutline to sixth in the Playoff standings, 21 points to the good.

“I was happy for Aric,” Bowyer said. “He had that race won last week (at Dover), and it was me that brought out the caution. I feel like he got a little redemption there.

“Was happy that we finished second.  I think it was second, second and second (in all three stages). As far as our day went, we needed to be a little bit better.”

Because of the late-race fuel shortage, Keselowski and Blaney enter next Sunday’s Round of 12 cutoff race at Kansas in ninth and 10th place, respectively. Keselowski, who finished 27th at Talladega, trails reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. (23rd Sunday) by 18 points for the final spot in the Round of 8. Blaney, who ran 29th, is 22 points back.

Kyle Larson salvaged an 11th-place finish after a litany of issues, including a blown left rear tire and spin on the backstretch, but Larson trails Truex by 26 points. Bowman, who finished 33rd after wrecking, can advance to the Round of 8 only by winning at Kansas.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished third on Sunday, followed by Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, who solidified his claim to a Round of 8 berth with the fifth-place finish. Logano is 39 points ahead of Keselowski, his Team Penske teammate.

AJ Allmendinger ran sixth, followed by Jimmie Johnson, who recovered from a spin through the tri-oval grass and contact with the inside wall on Lap 62 to come home seventh. Erik Jones, Paul Menard and Regan Smith completed the top 10.

Kansas in ninth and 10th place, respectively. Keselowski, who finished 27th at Talladega, trails reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. (23rd Sunday) by 18 points for the final spot in the Round of 8. Blaney, who ran 29th, is 22 points back.

Kyle Larson salvaged an 11th-place finish after a litany of issues, including a blown left rear tire and spin on the backstretch, but Larson trails Truex by 26 points. Bowman, who finished 33rd after wrecking, can advance to the Round of 8 only by winning at Kansas.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished third on Sunday, followed by Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, who solidified his claim to a Round of 8 berth with the fifth-place finish. Logano is 39 points ahead of Keselowski, his Team Penske teammate.

AJ Allmendinger ran sixth, followed by Jimmie Johnson, who recovered from a spin through the tri-oval grass and contact with the inside wall on Lap 62 to come home seventh. Erik Jones, Paul Menard and Regan Smith completed the top 10.

Fuel shortage deprives Kurt Busch of winning chance

Kurt Busch was one corner and a straightaway from his second victory of the season and an automatic ticket into the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

But Busch’s No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford ran out of gas in Turn 4 on the final lap of the 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Busch steered to the bottom of the track and watched helplessly as teammate Aric Almirola charged past him and claimed the overtime win.

Busch started from the pole led a race-high 108 of 193 laps, as Stewart-Haas dominated the event in unprecedented fashion, grabbing the top four positions in qualifying and finishing 1-2-3-4 in both stages before Almirola took the checkered flag with teammate Clint Bowyer behind him.

“It was a very different Talladega for me,” said Busch, who rolled across the finish line in 14th place. “I really enjoyed leading the race, working with my teammates. I’m really happy a Stewart-Haas car won, but the four of us, I’ve never seen so much synergy.”

Almirola got the ticket into the Round of 8 with the victory, but Busch leaves Talladega 30 points above the cut line, a relatively comfortable margin.

“That’s good stuff,” Busch said. “We had 21 (points) coming into this, and if you can bank nine and get the heck out of Talladega, that sounds good.”

 

Martin Truex Jr. fights to stay above cutline

From a handling standpoint, the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota of defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. was pure evil on Sunday at Talladega.

Truex fought the car from the outset, and no amount of tinkering by his crew on pit road could define and fix the problem. Truex had no choice but to run in the back of the field and try to stay out of trouble.

The only breaks he got came late—a late caution that gave him a chance to come to pit road for new tires for a two-lap overtime and his deft avoidance of serious damage in a Turn 1 wreck on the final lap.

Truex salvaged a 23rd-place finish, ahead of Playoff contenders Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, who had to pit for fuel before the last restart. As a result, Truex heads for next Sunday’s Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway 18 points ahead of Keselowski in ninth place and 22 ahead of Blaney in 10th.

“It didn’t really matter what we did to the car,” Truex said. “It (the problem) didn’t go away. We tried a lot of stuff. It was tough to drive. It couldn’t even go straight. I could run hard for two or three laps. As soon as the tires got some air pressure, I was just hanging on. The longer the runs were, the worse it got.

“There was no chance of me just getting up there and racing. I wanted to. Luckily, we were able to get some tires there in the end. I could go for about three laps. I felt good going to the green-white checkered. They wrecked in front of us, and we barely made it through. As soon as we got through there, I was able to salvage something.”

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