LOUDON, NH — I think most would say when looking back on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season that Michael McDowell’s win in the season opening Daytona 500 was the most surprising victory of the 36 races run. But, Aric Almirola’s win in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 may actually take the cake.
See, McDowell is always good on superspeedway’s and he was vastly improved during the 2021 season in general. Almirola meanwhile, entered 27th in points heading into this weekend’s race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on the heels of what has been a downright miserable season.
Almirola, had no top five finishes in the first 21 races run. He had just two top 10’s at that with 26 total laps led. Three of his first four finishes were 30th or worse. Six of the first eight were 20th or worse. In fact, by time we got to the 16th race of the year in Sonoma last month, he had 12 finishes outside the top 20 including six straight.
Now, he’s playoff bound.
Almirola, charged hard in a wild day on the Magic Mile and brought his No. 10 Ford home fifth in the second stage. In the final stage, he showed why we can’t overlook him.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver steadily moved up. He passed Brad Keselowski on a longer run once we got going in the final stage. Not long later, he got by Ryan Blaney for the top spot on Lap 245. With one more stop left in the race but the uncertainty on how far we’d go in the race, how would they manage this?
Darkness was settling in. NASCAR warned teams that if they feel like it was getting too dark then they’d give a heads up of 10 laps left without a possibility of overtime. That was staring them down but so was the fact that they needed one more stop too.
The big thing in front of them was a playoff berth.
Keselowski hit pit lane from third on Lap 247. Almirola and Blaney did so two laps later. Meanwhile, Matt DiBenedetto was trying to throw his own hail mary and hope to just run the daylight out. Could they make it to the end? Not if it’s a full distance. But, what happens if a yellow comes out to chew up some of the daylight? What happens if it gets dark faster and he’s leading?
So, despite not pitting since Lap 187, he remained out.
Almirola, had a money stop and exited ahead of Blaney off pit road. He was ahead of Keselowski when blending in while Blaney was now third among guys that had already pit now for their final time. Was this his race now to lose?
Despite their best efforts, darkness wasn’t here quick enough so DiBenedetto had to pit on Lap 273. That handed the lead over to Almirola. While this was happening, Christopher Bell had gotten by Keselowski and was coming on strong.
It didn’t end up mattering.
NASCAR ended the race eight laps shy of the scheduled distance and Bell while coming hard, didn’t have quite enough to really amount a serious charge at the win against Almirola as the SHR driver scored just his third career Cup Series victory.
What’s wild about this is, his only other two wins came on superspeedway’s in 2014 at Daytona and again in 2018 at Talladega. He entered with a 98 race winless streak and no momentum. He was 232 points behind the cutline for a playoff berth.
That didn’t come into play after all as he took his car to victory and became the 13th different winner on the season.
Bell, finished runner-up for the second time in three weeks in his No. 20 Toyota. He crossed the finish line .697-seconds behind Almirola at the end for his third straight top 10 result. This was also his fourth top 10 in his last five starts on the year as he had none in the previous seven races. At New Hampshire, Bell has six top two finishes in seven tries as he was runner-up and first in two Truck Series starts, has three straight wins in Xfinity competition including Saturday’s race and now a runner-up in Cup.
The Team Penske trio of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five with Keselowski now having five top 10’s in his last six Loudon starts including three top fours in his last five. This was also just his third top five finish in his No. 2 Ford on the season in the last 12 races.
Logano scored his seventh top 10 in the last 10 races on the year and just his second top five result in the last eight races on the season too in his No. 22 Ford. But, he also came home fourth in this race last year. For Blaney, this was his fourth top 10 in his last five Loudon tries including two of his last three being in the top five. Blaney, also has four top sixes in his last five races in 2021 after having none in his previous 11 races.
Here are my main takeaways.
Should Race Have Started? Rain Causes Troubles For Joe Gibbs Racing At The Start
The debate is on if whether Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 should have even started to begin with. See, rain fell in the Northeast from Saturday night through much of the morning on Sunday. Light mist hung around into the afternoon but even with those conditions, NASCAR felt like they had the track dried the best that they could in order to get the 22nd race of the 2021 season underway for an on time start.
Yes, weepers were a troublesome problem on the apron between Turns 1 and 2, but even with mist hanging around, they felt like they could drop the green flag still at 3:18 p.m. ET. That decision was quickly shown to be the wrong one.
The track was just too wet. The mist grew even heavier which caused leader Kyle Busch and second place driver Martin Truex Jr. to crash in Turn 1 just five laps into the race. Even fifth place driver at the time Denny Hamlin spun too which saw three JGR cars, all running inside of the top five, have problems on Lap 5 in Turn 1.
Busch’s day was done. As the leader, you’re going to hit the slippery parts of the track first. Truex being in second had similar fortunes. Everyone else behind could adapt which is exactly what happened. NASCAR elected to throw the yellow, then a few laps later the red flag.
We’d go 1-hour, 41-minutes and 22-seconds under red before we’d get back to action shortly after 5 p.m. ET. Which bodes the question, should the race have even started to begin with?
Most of the drivers don’t think so.
“We started the race under a mist. It should have never gone green to begin with,” a disappointed Busch said. “But, then it kept getting worse and worse lap over lap. The lap before I went into 1, 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 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.”
“It was wet the lap before,” he said. “I was screaming it was wet. The next time around, I lost it and it was done. There’s not much you can do on slicks in the rain.”
Hamlin said that he lucked out that he was just far enough behind to be in the wreck, he said it’s still not a good look to have started in these conditions.
“It was fortunate and unfortunate,” he said. It’s wet. We run slick tires and these cars don’t have any grip on slick tires and wet asphalt. To me, that’s the job of the corner spotter has in NASCAR. They’re sitting over there. They can feel when it’s raining and see when it’s raining. That’s their job to tell NASCAR that it’s raining and we have to stop so we don’t have that situation. You always in these situations, you want them to error on the side of not looking bad and this is just a bad look.”
This was reminiscent of the 2001 All-Star race in Charlotte. They allowed drivers to just go to backup cars once the track was ready again. They couldn’t do the same here due to a couple of factors.
First off, that was an All-Star race, not a points paying race. Secondly, with this being a one-day show, backup cars aren’t even here to be used. So, Busch got a head start early back to North Carolina as his day ended earlier than it needed to.
This crash also ends Toyota’s momentum at New Hampshire too.
Heading into this weekend, JGR had won four races since 2015 in New Hampshire. They had a car finish runner-up in the other five races in that span.
They’ve finished runner-up in each of the last three years at that too. Kyle Busch in 2018 and Denny Hamlin in 2019 and 2020. Busch, ended up winning in the 2017 playoff race with Hamlin victorious in the first of the two races on the 1-mile track earlier that season. In 2016, Matt Kenseth won the first race for JGR and was runner-up in the second one. In the 2015 playoff race they went 1-2 with the earlier race Busch winning.
They started 1-2 but instantly their two best cars were taken out. Truex, continued out but with damage and had a race winning car taken away.
Busch, had four straight top three finishes on the season halted. Truex now has just three top five finishes over the last 12 races as he finally got one last week before Sunday ruined that new found momentum.
SHR Turned It On Again….Does This Bode Well For The Rest Of The Season?
One of my five burning questions for this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway was can Stewart-Haas Racing turn things around in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301? See, they’ve been in this exact situation heading into Loudon before. It just happened two years ago in fact. Then, they’d have a good weekend and would be fine from there on out.
Kevin Harvick entered New Hampshire that season 0-for-19 to start the year off. He won in Loudon and propelled himself to a hot end of the season to where he marched all the way to the Championship 4. In the first 19 races of that year, Harvick had just five top five finishes, none of which better than fours. In the final 17 races, he had 10 top fives including three wins. He had almost as many wins in 17 races than he had top fives in the first 19.
This year has been a similar start. In fact, the entire organization has been down in performance compared to the other big teams that they’re consistently fighting for wins again. But, like in years past, is Loudon the place to kickstart SHR into another great end of the season?
Sunday shows maybe it can.
Harvick, led his first laps since early May in Darlington with leading a race-high 66 laps in a sixth place effort. His teammate in Aric Almirola looked as good as anyone in giving SHR their first victory in the last 28 races though and gave them a shot in the arm for the future again. Even Cole Custer had a solid day in 14th. Chase Briscoe had some mechanical issues early in which it was why he wasn’t up front with his teammates in the end.
They showed promise though on Sunday. Can that carryover now? Yes, two of the favorites were taken out early due to that crash in the rain but someone had to pick up the pieces and SHR looked stout.
Was This A Championship 4 Preview, if so, Hendrick Motorsports may have to worry
Hendrick Motorsports is officially on a winless streak. Two races to be exact and three in the last four overall. What’s odd is, they’ve not been looking like themselves lately either.
HMS drivers combined to lead just 13 laps all day last weekend in Atlanta. That comes after leading nearly all 500 miles of the race at the same track in the spring. They didn’t lead much two weeks prior in the second race of the Pocono doubleheader. Now, for a third time in four races, they looked pedestrian.
They led 40 of 140 laps at Pocono. They led 13 of 260 last Sunday in Atlanta. Now, they led 53 of 301 laps in New Hampshire, all coming by Elliott early just as he did last week in Atlanta. Is it time to worry yet and by worry I mean are teams catching up?
We’ve seen seasons ebb and flow? Is this just part of an ebb or is it a flow? One thing is, the speed isn’t there like it was prior but that could be circumstances too.
Sunday saw HMS finish 7-9-18-21. They were virtually non factors all day, just as they were last week.
The major thing is though, Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t won a race at Loudon in nearly a decade. It was 2012 to be exact. In fact, their overall performance has been lacking in New Hampshire lately. Elliott entered Sunday having just one top five in seven tries on the Magic Mile. William Byron and Alex Bowman have each made four starts for HMS on the Magic Mile and until Bowman’s ninth place run on Sunday, neither had yet to score a top 10. Kyle Larson was making his first HMS start on the track this weekend, so you can’t factor in his past stats yet but he did only come home seventh after not leading a single lap for a second straight week.
Another factor is that maybe they’re lacking on the 750 package on short tracks. Larson was seventh in Phoenix, fifth in Martinsville, 20th in Richmond, second in Dover and now seventh in Loudon. Elliott was fifth, second, 12th, third 18th and on the same tracks. Byron was eighth, fourth, seventh, fourth and 21st respectively while Bowman actually won twice (Richmond, Dover) and was 13th, 34th and ninth in the other two.
Dover was their obvious best at 1-2-3-4 but they’ve not been as dominant on other short tracks either. Where this could be the most worrisome is they’re not the best on short tracks right now in gernal. Even more so, Loudon has been an early preview of the Fall Phoenix race too.
Since New Hampshire went down from two races each year to one annually, this race has ended up being a Championship 4 preview. Last year especially since Loudon can translate over to Phoenix. In fact, with Richmond, Martinsville and Phoenix all being in the playoffs, that’s 30% of the postseason being on like tracks to Loudon. That’s why this race is arguably so important.
Plus, the tire used on Sunday in New Hampshire will be used in November at Phoenix. There’s a lot that can transfer over.
But, in general though, all four drivers to make the Championship 4 in 2018, 2019 and 2020 have all finished in the top 10 at New Hampshire. Furthermore, they’ve went 1-2 in each of those three years at the checkered flag in this race including taking three of the top four spots in two of the three years overall.
Last year, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott combined to lead 285 of the 301 laps in New Hampshire. They finished 1-2-4-9. In 2019, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch finished 1-2-6-8 and led 272 of the 301 laps. In 2018, Harvick, Busch, Truex Jr. and Logano went 1-2-4-9 and led 131 of 301 laps.
Also, 12 of the last 13 New Hampshire winners are Cup champions.
What does 2021 hold? Will three of the top four finishers on Sunday be in the Championship 4 at Phoenix? That’s great news for Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
The odd trend is, among the four Championship 4 drivers the last three years, the one that finished last among the four at New Hampshire won the title. Logano was ninth in 2018, Busch eighth in 2019 and Elliott ninth in 2020. Does someone like Kevin Harvick, Larson, Ross Chastain, Alex Bowman or Denny Hamlin benefit from that?
Right now, JGR has looked great on 750 tracks, which helps Hamlin. He finished third in Phoenix, third in Martinsville, second in Richmond and seventh at Dover. We’ve not had a short track since until Sunday. We have Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix to make up 40% of the playoffs on short tracks. He led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville. He led 207 of 400 laps a week later in Richmond. He also led 33 laps in a third place effort at Phoenix. He may have been 10th on Sunday but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin.
Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch never got to flex their muscles due to an early race crash not of their doing. But, Truex won at both Phoenix and Martinsville earlier this season. He was also fifth in Richmond after what should have been another top two or three result.
Busch’s day ended early but he also had four straight top three finishes entering as he’s been as hot as anyone. So has his teammate Christopher Bell. He finished runner-up for the second time in three weeks.
Then you get Team Penske that looked really good in New Hampshire for a second straight year. That translated well over to last year in which Keselowski won the playoff race at Richmond and led the most laps in the Championship 4 at Phoenix. Logano, led the most laps earlier this year in Phoenix and finished second. He was sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond and if not for an early race penalty would have likely been in the hunt for a win as he made up two laps to finish fourth, one spot behind Keselowski but one spot ahead of Blaney.
Right now, I think the top teams in order on the short track package is JGR-Penske-Hendrick respectively.
HMS was nowhere near that on Sunday.
HMS has won 15 of the last 36 races now after winning 14 of the previous 133. They’re 10-for-22 on the season in general and have won eight of the last 11 including last month’s All-Star race too. So, it’s not like they’re too far off, it’s just the area of weakness is glaring too.
PJ1 Not Needed
NASCAR and New Hampshire track officials elected not to put any PJ1 traction compound on the racing surface this weekend. See, with the weather forecast predicting a ton of rain in the Northeast region, there was no sense to spray any of it on and battle that both Saturday and Sunday.
Would the rain wash it off? Would they have to reapply it? So, they decided to just sit this year out. Good thing they did. The racing this weekend in New Hampshire was better now than it has been in years.
There was vastly more passing than I can remember seeing and it was fun seeing drivers set cars up in front to make passes and actually be able to do so. This was one of the more memorable races from start to finish and I’m not talking about the action due to mother nature and the crashes that occurred because of it.
This package without PJ1 on this track worked. Lets hope they don’t spray that again here.
Ford Finally Shows Might
Ford has been down lately in comparison to the manufacturer rivals (Chevrolet, Toyota). They entered Sunday not having won a race since Talladega in early May. That was on a superspeedway though. The last win before that was on March 29 at Bristol Dirt. Their last win on a true asphalt track with a normal package came via Ryan Blaney in Atlanta on March 21 (15 races ago). The only other win outside of that this season was in the Daytona 500 via Michael McDowell.
The four wins entering Loudon was shaping up to be their worst season since 2016 when they only won eight times. They took 18 trips to victory lane last year and 19 in 2018. They led a total of 1,053 laps compared to 2,384 by Chevy and 1,746 from Toyota.
Then on Sunday, they show up in a big way. Aric Almirola won. He led four other Fords across the finish line among the top six. They also combined to lead 228 of the 293 laps too.
This was a huge tipping point for Ford as we head to the two week break.
The driver to lead the most laps have won at New Hampshire just twice in the last 11 races. Kevin Harvick led the most laps at 66 on Sunday but finished sixth. Ryan Blaney was next best at 64 but came home fifth.