Aric Almirola went from a follower to a leader at just the right time Sunday. As his Stewart-Haas teammate Kurt Busch ran out of fuel on the final turn of the final lap of an overtime finish, Almirola was able to streak by for his first win since joining the team and his first since 2014 winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
“This is awesome! At Talladega!” Almirola shouted after taking the checkered flag. “I’ve been so close so many times this year. Four or five times this year, I feel like we’ve had a shot to win, and I haven’t been able to seal the deal… I feel like I’ve let (the team) down so many times, because we’ve had so many opportunities to win and haven’t done it…
“We come here, a place that I love—I won an Xfinity race here last year. I just love racing at Talladega, and I came here with the mind-set that we were going to go give ‘em hell, and if we wreck, we wreck, and if we win, we win. And we won!”
For most of the 500 miles it was an all Stewart-Haas Racing show with Almirola in the supporting role and Kurt Busch starring and co-starring Kevin Harvick.
The four-car team dominated the day forcing the rest of the field to try and keep up. Busch, who led from the pole would win the first stage and a race high 108 laps, pitted on lap 138 along with his teammates. This put all four in danger of running out of fuel on an overtime finish. Kevin Harvick who won the second stage and led the second most laps, 46, pitted as the field was coming to the green with a sputtering engine.
Harvick would finish 28th, Busch coasted to 14th.
“It was a very different Talladega for me,” Busch said. “I really enjoyed leading the race, working with my teammates. I’m really happy a Stewart-Haas car won, but the four of us, I’ve never seen so much synergy.”
The final chaos was set up when Alex Bowman spun into the wall in turn 4 sweeping up J.J. Yeley with 2 laps to go.
The races sixth and final caution set up the overtime finish. During the caution both Busch and Harvick reported their fuel pressures dropping. Harvick decided to pit, Busch rolled the dice.
“Mine sputtered there on the fuel pressure,” Harvick said. “It dropped down in the red and they did the right thing of coming in and pitting and not taking a chance. You just need to put yourself in a position to where you’re good for next week and just glad that one of our cars won and happy for Aric.”
Busch led entering turn 3 but began to slow; Almirola with a push from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., was able to shoot by on the outside. Clint Bowyer was able to slip by for second, Stenhouse settled for third. Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano rounded out the top five.
AJ Allmendinger was sixth followed by Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Paul Menard and Regan Smith rounding out the top 10.
Almirola, Bowyer and Logano were the only Playoff drivers to finish inside the top 10. Kyle Larson struggled all race long spinning after a blown tire on lap 103 and tearing up the front fender of his Chevy; he recovered to finished 11th. Martin Truex Jr. was never in contention and finished 23rd, Kyle Busch was damaged in the final crash and finished 26th, Brad Keselowski, who led 21 laps after pitting under green for a loose wheel on lap 41 and went a lap down, finished 27 after running out of fuel on the final lap. Ryan Blaney also ran out of fuel just prior to Kurt Busch and finished 29. Chase Elliott was swept up in a crash with Matt DiBenedetto on the white flag lap entering turn 1 was 31st. Bowman was 33rd.
Kurt Busch was none too pleased with NASCAR after the race when they did not throw a caution on the white flag lap, when Busch was leading.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series heads to Kansas Speedway for Next Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400. Live coverage will be on NBC starting at 2:00 p.m.
Chase Elliott and Almirola who won the last two races are the only drivers officially locked into the next round. Keselowski, Blaney, Larson and Bowman face elimination as the Round of 8 will be determined.