TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Tony Stewart hired Aric Almirola because he believed the journeyman would win races for Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola came close time and again this year but fell short.
The boss made sure to keep Almirola’s spirits high every chance he got, including a pre-race pep talk Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
“He just keeps telling me, ‘Calm down, take deep breaths,’” Almirola said. “He’s like, ‘You’re going to win, I promise you. The day I told you I was going to hire you, I knew you were going to win races for my company. Put yourself in position, and it will happen.’”
He put himself in position Sunday to cap an absolute SHR rout at Talladega with an overtime victory that earned him an automatic berth into the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs.
It also snapped a 149-race losing streak for Almirola and atoned for his oh-so-close moment in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“I just love racing at Talladega and I came to the track with the mindset that we were going to go race and we were going to go give them hell, and if we wrecked, we wrecked,” Almirola said. “And if we win, we win. And we won. What a cool time to do it, too.”
More important, it showed that SHR arrived at Talladega prepared to work as a four-car team and ensure one of its drivers made it to victory lane.
The SHR Fords were untouchable all weekend. They swept qualifying, won every stage of Sunday’s race and used teamwork to pull away from the field. As the laps wound down, Kurt Busch led his three teammates in a straight line and pulled the train away from the pack, which couldn’t organize itself behind the SHR group to mount any sort of challenge.
But the dynamics changed when Alex Bowman spun with three laps remaining to bring out an ill-timed caution.
Now the race was going to overtime, and two of the SHR cars didn’t have enough gas for the extra laps.
First Busch’s fuel light began to flicker. Then Kevin Harvick got the same warning. As the field roared to the green flag, Harvick forfeited a shot at victory by pulling off the track to get enough gas to make it to the finish.
Busch stayed out as the leader with Almirola and Clint Bowyer looking for a slot to slip past him for the victory. Then Busch ran out of gas headed to the checkered flag and Almirola zipped by for his first victory of the season, first since joining SHR this year as the replacement for Danica Patrick, and first since the rain-shortened Daytona race in July 2014. It was the second Cup victory of his career.
Almirola was also leading on the final lap in overtime of the season-opening Daytona 500 until he was wrecked by winner Austin Dillon.
Almirola thought he had last week’s race at Dover won until a caution triggered by teammate Bowyer ruined his shot at the victory. A week later, he got his checkered flag and his stamp into the round of eight into the playoffs.
“Four or five times this year I feel like we’ve had a shot to win and haven’t been able to seal the deal,” Almirola said.
Bowyer finished second, congratulated his teammate and praised the SHR cooperation.
“He had that race won last week, and it was me that brought out the caution, so I feel like he got a little redemption there,” Bowyer said. “I don’t think you can write enough about the job that everybody at Stewart-Haas did. We finally got all four cars to the cream of the crop. Oh my gosh, was it awesome.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished third in a Ford from Roush Fenway Racing and marveled at how the SHR contingent crushed the field, even though Stenhouse had the same Roush Yates engine.
“Obviously they had it choreographed to restart really well,” Stenhouse said. “They definitely did their homework. They used to not qualify very good, and obviously they’ve went to work on their speedway cars. Their cars are just really fast. They were committed to working together and blocking people at the right time. Those four were just getting away. It was pretty impressive to watch.”
SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said the effort started after Dover when the drivers were urged to work together at Talladega as teammates.
“Last week we didn’t do a great job executing as a group,” Zipadelli said. “We just talked a lot about it. I just think everybody said, ‘We need to help each other, work together, show everybody that we are teammates.’ I felt like our cars were strong enough that if we did that, we would have a very strong day.”
Busch faded to 14th and Harvick wound up 28th — a disappointing end because SHR was poised for a 1-2-3-4 finish before the race went to overtime. But the team understood how dominant it had been all day and fortunate it was to leave Talladega with one driver locked into the next round of the playoffs and the other three still in contention.
The playoff field will be trimmed from 12 drivers to eight after next week’s race at Kansas Speedway.
“Mine sputtered there on the fuel pressure and it dropped down in the red and they did the right thing of coming in and pitting and not taking a chance,” Harvick said. “You just need to put yourself in a position to where you’re good for next week, just glad that one of our cars won, and happy for Aric.”
The four drivers in danger of elimination next week at Kansas are Brad Keselowski, his Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Bowman.
FUEL WOES: Keselowski was in good shape and trying to organize the pack of traffic to make a run at the SHR cars until the late caution stretched his fuel window. He ran out of gas on the final lap, fell to 27th and now can be eliminated from the playoffs. He had won three consecutive races last month to move into title contention.
He felt his chance at the win, prior to running out of gas, was harmed by Bowman’s driving in the pack.
“He was in there and he was kind of banzai, win at all costs, and just kept making moves that killed everybody else and didn’t help himself,” Keselowski said. “Without that we were kind of shot. I kept trying to get my teammates with me and every time we about got lined up, somebody would bonsai them and we just couldn’t do anything.”
Busch was steamed about two NASCAR calls late in the race. First, drivers were forced to burn fuel during a long cleanup period under caution before overtime. Then, no caution was called on the final overtime lap for a wreck in the first turn. Busch ran out of gas in the final turn.
“There were two missed calls by NASCAR at the end,” he said. “Why do we have an extra yellow flag lap is beyond me. The track was ready to go. At the end, once we crossed the white flag and there is a wreck and an ambulance needs to be dispatched, I’ve been on the other side of that where I was racing coming back to win the race and they said, ‘Well we had to dispatch an ambulance.’ There was two cars dead in the water down there. It’s a human call. There’s rules that need to be stricter at the end of these races.”
NASCAR said in a statement the caution in overtime was not called because “all cars were able to either roll off under their own power or signal they were clear. As always, we make every effort to end under green for our fans in the stands and at home, which we did.”
UP NEXT: The elimination race of the second round of the playoffs, at Kansas Speedway, where Kevin Harvick won in May and Martin Truex Jr. won last October. Harvick, Truex and Kyle Busch have combined to win the last five races at Kansas.
More AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports