E.A. Sports Today

Breaking through

Almirola wins 1000Bulbs.com 500 in dramatic fashion; Stewart-Haas drivers play nice, dominate the field, finally win at Talladega

Race winner Aric Almirola (10) battles Stewart-Haas teammate Kevin Harvick in Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. On the cover, Almirola celebrates in Victory Lane. (Photos by Jonathan Fordham/East Alabama Sports Today)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – Aric Almirola was a good solider all day long and got rewarded at the end.

Meanwhile, Kurt Busch was left to wonder what might have been.

The Stewart-Haas Racing machines were nothing short of dominant in the 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway all day, to the point it looked like it were finally going to win a race here.

And it looked like Busch was going to be the one to do it, finally getting that Talladega win that has forever eluded his grasp.

Aric Almirola embraces team mechanic Jay Guarneri in Victory Lane. (Photo by Jonathan Fordham/East Alabama Sports Today)

But Almirola made a move on the last lap, NASCAR didn’t throw a caution when several cars collected behind them near the start-finish line of the final overtime lap and Busch ran out of gas with the checkered flag in sight. It all led to Almirola winning the race, giving SHR its first Cup win since the team’s inception at Talladega.

“This is so awesome,” Almirola said immediately after the race. “… At Talladega.

“I’ve been so close so many times this year … four or five times this year I felt we had a shot to win and hadn’t been able to seal the deal; I felt like I let them down so many times. I came here with a mindset we were going to go race and give them hell. If we win it, we win; if we wreck, we wreck – and we win. I’m just proud to be the one on top today.”

Almirola came to the track with the intention of scoring as many stage points as he could so he could go to Kansas next week with a chance to advance to the next stage of the playoffs, but he wound up racing teammate Clint Bowyer for those same points. But instead of just collecting points, he wound up guaranteeing his spot with the win.

It was his second victory in 275 Cup starts and ended a 149-race drought since his 2014 win at Daytona. He won the Xfinity Series race here in 2017.

Stewart-Haas driver Clint Bowyer finished second, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was third and Denny Hamlin was fourth.

Usually race teams are teams until the late stages of the race when it comes to somebody winning and then it’s every man for himself. It may have been that way Sunday if the race had stayed green to the finish, but the SHR bosses met with their drivers about playing nice and they all stuck to the script.

Almirola, 34, was the fourth of the four SHR cars at the top of the starting grid and he was running third or fourth most of the day in the pack they established in front of the field. All four cars claimed the first four spots in the first stage of the race in the order they qualified and had the top four places in the second stage.

The bloc was so strong, it led for 155 of 193 laps and was nearly two full seconds – 20 car lengths – ahead of the fifth-running car with five laps to go. Had the caution not come out on the final lap of regulation, they theoretically could’ve come across the finish line four-wide.

“When we qualified top four, all of us together, I knew all four of us were going to be tough to beat and we were going to have really fast race cars,” Almirola said. “We’ve been chasing those Penske cars for years now; they’ve been the dominant team when we showed up at restrictor plate tracks. They’ve been able to do somewhat of what we did today – they’d get organized and basically dominate the race – and today we were able to do that.

“We stayed so committed to each other. It was us against the field. When we started to drive off from the field as the first stage went on I knew we had something special. I knew one of our four cars were gonna win. It was an incredible day for us as an organization.”

As long as nobody did something stupid behind them to bring out a field-bunching caution it was likely one of the SHR cars was going to win. Then Alex Bowman lost his air and touched off a five-car incident in Turn 4 on Lap 187 throwing the race into overtime mode.

The SHR cars survived that restart and moved out to the front again, but then Chase Elliott, already locked into the next round of the playoffs, got tangled up with Matt DiBenedetto way back of the pack. This time, NASCAR didn’t throw the caution SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli – and a lot of others, including Busch – expected.

Busch, the runner-up in the spring race here and now 0-for-26 in Talladega Cup races, was leading the four-car SHR pack, but gambled on fuel for the closing stage of the race and ran out of it, opening the door for Almirola to win it.

“I was pulling out all the information I could,” Busch said. “My team did an incredible job to tell me about the different situations and we came up a little shy on fuel.”

The last lap was the only lap Almirola led. Busch, the pole-sitter, led the 53 previous laps and 108 total; he finished 14th. Kevin Harvick had to pit for a fuel issue on the final restart, but he led for 46 laps. Bowyer was the only SHR driver not to lead a lap.

Aric Almirola does a burnout after winning the race. (Photo by Jonathan Fordham)

Now all four SHR drivers have won this season, marking the first time since 2005 a Ford team with four or more cars had all their cars win in the same season.

“What happened today was just cooperation,” Bowyer said. “I was happy for Aric. He had that race won last week; it was me who drew that caution, so I felt like he got a little redemption there.

“You can’t say enough, I don’t think you can write enough, about the job everybody at Stewart-Haas did. Those cars were so fast. I’ve seen other guys, other teams, other organizations put that together before. It was our turn. We finally got all four cars to the creme of the crop and, oh my gosh, was it awesome.”

It was Ford’s eighth straight win at Talladega. It used to be the Penske group that led that charge, but the future may be changing.

“Obviously they had it choreographed to restart really well,” Stenhouse said. “Once they got in line they just brought a lot of speed to the race track. Even when you see what the Penske cars and some of the other cars (have done), they’re not able to stay up front that dominant.

“They definitely did their homework. They used to not qualify very good and obviously they’ve gone to work on their speedway cars, for sure. Their cars were just really fast and they were committed to working together and blocking people at the right now.

“Us and the Penske cars probably had the better Ford cars for a while, but that definitely changed today. They stepped up their game. They were definitely the class of the field all weekend.”

The dominant Stewart-Haas cars – Kurt Busch (41), Kevin Harvick (4), race winner Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer (14) – led a total of 155 laps in the race. (Photo by Jonathan Fordham/East Alabama Sports Today)

1000BULBS.COM 500

Final results
(10) Aric Almirola, Ford
(14) Clint Bowyer, Ford

(17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford
(11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota
(22) Joey Logano, Ford
(47) AJ Almendinger, Chevy
(48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy
(20) Erik Jones, Toyota
(21) Paul Menard, Ford
(95) Regan Smith, Chevy
(42) Kyle Larson, Chevy
(62) Brendan Gaughan
(6) Trevor Bayne, Ford
(41) Kurt Busch, Ford
(13) Ty Dillon, Chevy
(19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota
(3) Austin Dillon, Chevy
(00) Joey Gase, Chevy
(43) Darrell Wallace Jr., Chevy
(24) William Bryon, Chevy
(37) Chris Buescher, Chevy
(99) Landon Cassill, Chevy
(78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota
(15) Ross Chastain, Chevy
(31) Ryan Newman, Chevy
(18) Kyle Busch, Toyota
(2) Brad Keselowski, Ford
(4) Kevin Harvick, Ford
(12) Ryan Blaney, Ford

(32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford
(9) Chase Elliott, Chevy
(72) Corey LaJoie, Chevy
(88) Alex Bowman, Chevy
(7) D.J. Kennington, Chevy
(1) Jamie McMurray, Chevy
(23) J.J. Yeley, Ford
(96) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Toyota
(51) Cody Ware, Chevy
(38) David Ragan, Ford
(34) Michael McDowell, Ford
Playoff drivers in bold
Time of race: 3:20.24. Average speed: 153.707 mph. Margin of victory: 0.105 seconds. Stage 1 winner: Kurt Busch. Stage 2 winner: Kevin Harvick. Cautions: 8 for 32 laps. Lead changes: 15 among 11 drivers.

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