Stewart-Haas Racing put on a clinic yesterday afternoon at Talladega, something we haven’t seen on a restrictor-plate race in decades. After qualifying 1-4 on Saturday afternoon, the four cars continually stood in line single-file on the lower groove and pace the field all the way until the closing laps. Those four cars were absolute rockets and the blue ovals once again dominated on a restrictor-plate track, the 7th straight win for Ford in Alabama.
Kurt Busch paced the field after qualifying on the pole and led 108 laps, something you just don’t see at Talladega which more often than not ends up as a demolition derby. Busch won the first stage while teammate Kevin Harvick took stage two and led 46 laps in his own right in the middle of the race. Clint Bowyer finished second in both stages collecting the playoff points and was there at the end in the race to the finish as he finished 2nd and enters home track Kansas 21 points to the good before the final eight are set. Eventual race winner Aric Almirola was the 4th car in the back of the SHR staple the majority of the day and was the guy that needed every single point in hopes of continuing in the playoffs. He even tried to negotiate a spot from teammates in the early stages to pick up an extra point in the closing seconds of the laps, but there was no give. He would fall in line, push the pack and keep the 4 SHR cars surging the field.
In the closing moments after a couple of caution flags, the SHR cars along with many of the leaders knew they were going to be tight on fuel. When Alex Bowman brought out the final caution on a spin, that was the end of the line for several top Fords. Brad Keselowski and Penske teammate Ryan Blaney, who both tried to dethrone the Stewart-Haas connection were out as was one of the dominant cars of the day in the 4 of Kevin Harvick. They were all forced down pit road as the field was taking the green on the final restart in overtime. The finished 27th, 28th and 29th respectively, a disappointing result after a solid day start to finish for all three Fords.
After taking the white flag with Almirola surging and Ricky Stenhouse giving the push to the No. 10, a bunch of cars started to wreck behind them after Chase Elliott got loose with Matt DiBenedetto. Credit to NASCAR in that spot for not throwing the yellow and effecitely ending the race. With no drivers in need of urgent care and the path to the start/finish clear, NASCAR let the drivers race to the finish. Seconds later the 41 of Kurt Busch was out of fuel and the 10 of Almirola was there to take the spot, the lead and win the race. Bowyer made the pass of Stenhouse for second while Denny Hamlin finished 4th and Joey Logano rounded out the top five.
“This is awesome! At Talladega! 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,” Almirola said during his post-race interview. “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!”
Kurt Busch was not so happy after having the race seemingly snatched from him. He was critical of NASCAR for not throwing the final yellow that would have ended the race immediately, that many praised of NASCAR so that viewers can see an exciting end to the finish. He also made a valid point of an additional yellow flag pace lap which could have been the reason why many of the cars ran out in the waning moments. Busch finished 14th, but after winning the stage and collecting a lot of points was able to bank 9 points and leave ‘Dega 30-points to the good.
AJ Allmendinger finsihed 6th, Jimmie Johnson rebounded from an early spin and contact with the inside wall to finish 7th, Erik Jones and Paul Menard ran up front most of the day and finished 8th and 9th while Regan Smith subbing for Kasey Kahne for Leavine Family Racing scored a top ten finish.
Updated Playoff Standings heading into Kansas next week (cut-off race in Round of 12):
- Aric Almirola (advanced – win Talladega)
- Chase Elliott (advanced – win Dover)
- Kevin Harvick +63
- Kyle Busch + 46
- Joey Logano +39
- Kurt Busch +30
- Clint Bowyer +21
- Martin Truex Jr. +18
- Brad Keselowski -18
- Ryan Blaney -22
- Kyle Larson -26
- Alex Bowman -68