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.
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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.
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“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.