LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Aric Almirola carried the weight of a winless season while chasing a playoff berth that seemed implausible for a driver buried deep in the standings on a Stewart-Haas Racing program that had yet to take a checkered flag.
His confidence sagged. The pressure tightened on the No. 10 team.
With darkness falling at New Hampshire, Almirola saw his season suddenly come into focus. Almirola sprung to life late Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and pulled off the surprise victory, a vital boost for SHR, Ford and another shakeup of the NASCAR playoff picture.
“Coming into this race, we never gave anybody a reason to pick us,” Almirola said. “It feels good to be the underdog and come out of nowhere and have the race car we did.”
Almirola snapped a 98-race winless streak and added New Hampshire to a rain-shortened win at Daytona in 2014 and Talladega in 2018 for his third victory in 374 races.
And he’s in the playoffs.
Almirola was the latest surprise winner and played havoc with the playoff picture with only four races left before the 16-driver field is set. Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick are among the drivers who could use a win and clinch a berth.
The race was delayed nearly two hours by rain and NASCAR called it early due to darkness, leaving it eight laps shy of its scheduled conclusion.
New Hampshire was scheduled for 301 laps and 318.46 miles. Almirola took the checkered in 293 laps. He broke up the Team Penske party — Brad Keselowksi and Ryan Blaney had a fun back-and-forth for the lead at one point — and Christopher Bell could not catch him.
Bell won the Xfinty Series race Saturday and was second. Keselowski, Joey Logano and Blaney made it a 3-4-5 finish for Team Penske.
“I felt like I probably had a little bit better pace than him, able to get to him,” Bell said. “Lapped cars were giving him a bad time. If I was able to get to him, it was going to be a heck of a race.
Almirola rested his head on the car in almost stunned disbelief that he clinched his playoff spot.
“There is no doubt we have struggled,” Almirola said. “But guess what? We’re going playoff racing.”
Almirola, who entered 27th in the points standings, was the first driver out of the SHR pack that includes Kevin Harvick, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe to take the checkered flag. Almirola had only two top 10s this season. Harvick was sixth and led a race-high 66 laps.
Ford drivers took five of the top six spots.
Almirola said there was “enough light” to keep racing to the scheduled finish.
NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller defended the decision to shorten the race.
“We just felt like it was getting too dark and needed to call it. It’s just as simple as that,” he said. “Completely based on raceability. “
NASCAR started the race under wet conditions and that decision turned into a disaster when Kyle Busch, the polesitter, spun on the slick track and wrecked only six laps into the race. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin also spun and the red flag was waved to stop the race. Truex and Hamlin returned to race. Busch’s race in the No. 18 Toyota was over and he bit his tongue on NASCAR’s call to start the race.
“It never should have gone green to begin with, but then it kept getting worse and worse lap over lap,” Busch said. “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.”
Hamlin said, “this is just a bad look.”
NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said on NBC Sports races have started in the mist but the track “got slick in a hurry.”
New England Patriots return specialist Gunner Olszewski, the honorary pace car driver, and drivers Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie tossed the football around with fans during the delay.
Busch pulled down the window net in his Toyota and appeared to bump the pace car in frustration on his way to pit road. Miller said NASCAR would address Busch’s actions this week.
Summer vacation! With NBC busy with Olympics coverage, NASCAR takes a rare two-week break and does not return until Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen. Watkins Glen was bumped from the schedule last season because of the pandemic. Elliott won the last race on the road course in 2019.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports