EditorsNote: fixes NASCAR in lede, deletes 12 points reference in last graf, smaller changes throughout, adds additional quotes
For three-plus hours on Sunday afternoon, the only question surrounding the 1000Bulbs.com 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway appeared to concern which Stewart-Haas Racing driver would get the victory.
The answer came back: Aric Almirola, the SHR driver who needed it the most.
The overtime victory was his first of the season and came at a great time as it locked him into the next round of the Cup playoffs.
“That was so awesome,” Almirola shouted. “At Talladega. I’ve been so close so many times this year.
“Four or five times this year I felt like we had a shot to win but haven’t been able to seal the deal.”
Teammate Clint Bowyer finished second, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of Roush Fenway Racing was third.
Stewart-Haas’ driver foursome of pole-sitter Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Bowyer and Almirola started the race in the top four spots. They stayed that way though stages 1 and 2, winning both (Busch the first and Harvick the second).
The final stage saw the four — who spent most of the race using nose-to-tail teamwork at the 2.66-mile restrictor-plate track — challenged.
A caution with 29 laps to go set up a restart and a chance to split up the SHR foursome. But the Stewart-Haas drivers orchestrated themselves to nose to tail at the front of the preferred inside line. For the next 26 laps, they pulled away from the rest of the field.
But with three laps to go, out came a caution to set up an overtime finish and another restart. Before that restart, Harvick, who had led 46 laps, had to pit for fuel. Busch, who led 108 laps, was in the lead, but then he ran out of fuel on the final lap.
“I was trying to do what I could to manage the fuel, and there was two missed calls by NASCAR there at the end,” Busch said. “Why an extra yellow-flag lap there at the end is beyond me. The track was ready to go. ... There’s rules that need to be stricter at the end of these races.”
That left it up to Almirola, and he came through.
“I came to the track with a mindset that we were going to go race and were going to give them hell and if we wreck, we wreck, if we win, we win,” said Almirola, who joins Chase Elliott as bearers of automatic Round of 8 berths. “And we won.”
“The four of us (SHR drivers) were so committed to each other and so organized, the field couldn’t touch us. What an impressive run by Stewart-Haas Racing. I’m just proud to be the one on top today.”
Bowyer added, “Great day for Stewart-Haas. I’m just so happy and proud to be in those cars on a day like today. That was the easiest Talladega of my life and it was because of the rocket ships they brought us to race.”
The event was the second in the three-race Round of 12 in the playoffs. The field of drivers eligible to win the 2018 championship will be cut down to eight following next weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway.
After Almirola and Elliott, the rest of the top eight of the standings, in order, is Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.
Brad Keselowski is 18 points back, Ryan Blaney, is 22 points back, Kyle Larson trails by 26 points, and Alex Bowman faces a 68-point deficit.
—Field Level Media