As darkness descended on New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday evening, NASCAR called for the checkered flag eight laps earlier than the 301-scheduled distance in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 with Aric Almirola as the race leader.
The win was the third of Almirola’s NASCAR Cup Series career but his first since 2018. It also was the first win of the 2021 season for the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing team. Almirola’s latest win was the fourth-straight at NHMS for Ford, though.
“This is, by far, one of my favorite race tracks,” Almirola said. “I love coming up to the New England area and racing. I love this race track. I had this race won a couple years ago, and I gave it away. I lost it, and I am so glad to win a race here with this race team. God is so good. We’ve been through so much, and I’ve just stood the test and kept the faith.
“The team, everybody, they’ve just been working so hard. Smithfield, Ford, Go Bowling, Pit Boss Grills, everybody, Honeystinger, Shady Rays Sunglasses. There have been so many people that have just continued to support us through the crappiest year ever, and, man, this feels so good for them. My pit crew, they did a phenomenal job on pit road. All the guys that work on this car, they just keep fighting. They just keep digging, bringing the best race car they can bring every week, and it is no doubt, we have struggled, but guess what? We’re going playoff racing.”
NASCAR was unable to get its race to the scheduled distance at the track that lacks lighting because of a lengthy red flag for rain early in the race.
Christopher Bell finished second after closing on Almirola as the leader had difficulty getting by lapped traffic in the final 10 laps.
“I didn’t know how may laps they cut it short, but definitely, whenever I saw the board and saw that we were eight laps short, it stings, man,” Bell said. “I felt like I probably had a little better pace than him, and I was able to get to him. I know lapped cars were giving him a bad time, but I was able to get to him. It was going to be a heck of a race, but really proud of everyone on this Rheel Pristine Auction Camry. They did really good. Everyone on this 20 crew – we didn’t start out the greatest, and then, we were really good, probably the best we were all day right there at the end of the race. That’s all you can ask for is to have a shot at it and just wish we had eight more laps.”
The Team Penske trio of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney finished third through fifth. Logano’s top-five finish came after an early-race two lap penalty when his crew were caught working on the #22 car during the red flag.
Bell was the only driver not behind the wheel of a Ford to finish in the top-six. Kevin Harvick was the sixth-place finisher after leading a race-high 66 laps, more laps than he led in the first 21 laps of the season, combined.
After Keselowski and Blaney led laps early in the final stage, Almirola took the race lead on 246. He soon gave up that lead during a cycle of green-flag pit stops on lap 250. Matt DiBenedetto stayed out longer, hoping for NASCAR to throw in the proverbial towel and call the race official for darkness before finally making his stop on lap 274 and turning the lead back over to Almirola.
The race got off to a messy start. By the time the red flag waved for rain upon the completion of eight laps, the precipitation had already resulted in a lap-six incident that led to the early-race retirement of Kyle Busch and significant damage to the car of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. Another JGR driver, Denny Hamlin; Alex Bowman; and Ross Chastain also slipped on the wet track but sustained less significant damage.
“We started the race under a mist. It never should have gone green to begin with, but then, it kept getting worse and worse lap over lap,” Busch said. “The lap before I went into [turn] one and 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, don’t get too dramatic – 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.”
Busch started from the pole with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Truex alongside on the front row, and the two were running first and second until their early-race incident. Unlike Busch, Truex was able to continue after repairs.
“It’s just ice. Slicks don’t stick to water. I think the 18 [Busch] and I had it the worst, because we were out front,” Truex said during the rain delay. We’re a half-a-lap ahead of the back of the field, so it’s the wettest when we get there. The lap before I went into [turn] one and about did the same thing, and I hollered on the radio that the track is wet. Like wet, wet. I tried to back it down, and I got in there and it just kept going. I couldn’t even slow it down. At some point, you have to turn the wheel, and that’s when it spins out. I don’t know. I hate it for Reser’s Fine Foods. We only have a few races with them and they have a lot of people here. We were excited for the opportunity to race here at one of my favorite tracks. Now we’re out[of contention for the win]. We’ll be able to get some work done on it, but it’s not pretty.”
Chase Elliott inherited the lead for the restart of the race, but on lap 62, Blaney passed him for the lead and drove on to a stage-one win on lap 75. By the end of the stage, Elliott also had lost second to Keselowski.
The top-three drivers in stage one all lost positions on pit road during the caution that followed the stage as Harvick got out of the pits first for the lead early in the 110-lap second stage. Blaney also lost positions on his next trip down pit road during a lap-128 caution for Quin Houff.
Harvick continued to lead until he was overtaken by Keselowski on lap 146, one lap after the restart from a lap-139 caution for an incident involving Chris Buescher and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. Keselowski continued up front to win stage two on lap 185. Ford drivers were in the top-three positions at the end of stage two, with Harvick in second and Blaney in third.
Finishing seventh through 10th were Kyle Larson, Chastain, Bowman and Hamlin.