Aric Almirola celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

LOUDON, N.H. — Aric Almirola carried the weight of a winless season while chasing a playoff berth that seemed implausible for a driver buried deep in the standings on a Stewart-Haas Racing program that had yet to take a checkered flag.

His confidence sagged. The pressure tightened on the No. 10 team.

With darkness falling at New Hampshire, Almirola saw his season suddenly come into focus. Almirola sprung to life late Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and pulled off a surprise victory, a vital boost for SHR and Ford, and another shakeup of the NASCAR playoff picture.

“Coming into this race, we never gave anybody a reason to pick us,” Almirola said. “It feels good to be the underdog and come out of nowhere and have the race car we did.”

Almirola snapped a 98-race winless streak and added New Hampshire to a rain-shortened win at Daytona in 2014 and Talladega in 2018 for his third victory in 374 races.

And he’s in the playoffs.

Almirola was the latest surprise winner and played havoc with the playoff picture with only four races left before the 16-driver field is set. Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick are among the drivers who have yet to clinch a berth.

The race was delayed nearly two hours by rain and NASCAR called it early because of darkness, leaving it eight laps shy of its scheduled conclusion.

Almirola broke up the Team Penske party – Brad Keselowksi and Ryan Blaney had a fun back-and-forth for the lead at one point – and Christopher Bell could not catch him.

Bell won the Xfinity Series race Saturday and finished second Sunday. Keselowski, Joey Logano and Blaney made it a 3-4-5 finish for Team Penske.

“I felt like I probably had a little bit better pace than him, able to get to him,” Bell said. “Lapped cars were giving him a bad time. If I was able to get to him, it was going to be a heck of a race.

Almirola rested his head on the car in almost stunned disbelief that he clinched a playoff spot.

“There is no doubt we have struggled,” Almirola said. “But guess what? We’re going playoff racing.”

Almirola, who entered 27th in the points standings, was the first driver out of the SHR pack that includes Harvick, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe to take the checkered flag. Almirola had only two top 10s this season.

Harvick led a race-high 66 laps but finished sixth.

Ford drivers took five of the top six spots.

Almirola said there was “enough light” to keep racing to the scheduled finish.

NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller defended the decision to shorten the race.

“We just felt like it was getting too dark and needed to call it. It’s just as simple as that,” he said. “Completely based on raceability. “

NASCAR started the race under wet conditions, and that decision turned into a disaster when Kyle Busch, the pole-sitter, spun on the slick track and wrecked only six laps into the race. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin also spun and the red flag was waved to stop the race.

Truex and Hamlin returned to race. Busch’s race in the No. 18 Toyota was over, and he bit his tongue on NASCAR’s call to start the race.

“It never should have gone green to begin with, but then it kept getting worse and worse lap over lap,” Busch said. “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.”

Hamlin said, “this is just a bad look.”

NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said on NBC Sports races have started in the mist, but the track “got slick in a hurry.”

RAIN DELAY THEATER

New England Patriots return specialist Gunner Olszewski, the honorary pace car driver, and drivers Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie tossed the football around with fans during the delay.

BUSCH’S BUMP

Busch pulled down the window net in his Toyota and appeared to bump the pace car in frustration on his way to pit road. Miller said NASCAR would address Busch’s actions this week.

SATURDAY NIGHT’S ALRIGHT FOR WINNING

Chase Elliott was still soaking in his Saturday night victory when he raced head-to-head against his NASCAR Hall of Fame father and won the Superstar Racing Experience at the old Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

He got the best of 65-year-old Bill Elliott even though his father is an SRX regular. Tony Stewart was second and the elder Elliott was third.

“We were literally racing for the win of the race last night, and that was no fluke or joke or setup thing,” Chase Elliott said. “We were legitimately racing 1-2, which is incredible. Tony has been a hero of mine forever. To share the podium with both of them, I couldn’t have asked for anything to be any more special than that.”

Chase Elliott, the reigning Cup champion, said NASCAR should race at the Fairgrounds over the more remote Nashville Superspeedway.

“I’ve always felt that way, but that other track is not the answer,” he said. “The energy is right there in town, and we don’t need to search any further. That’s it for that city. No doubt.”

Kyle Larson won $175,000 and the prestigious Kings Royal dirt race in the World of Outlaws series on Saturday night, and Harvick, who has his own management team, saw client Miesha Tate come out of retirement and win a UFC fight.


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