Aric Almirola piloted the No. 98 Biagi-Denbeste Racing Ford to victory Friday night at Daytona International Speedway. The Florida native won after slipping into the lead on the final lap and running side-by-side with Justin Allgaier as a big crash erupted behind the leaders. A pack of six cars, led by Almirola and Allgaier, raced all the way to the frontstretch before NASCAR threw the caution flag for the backstretch crash, immediately ending the race.
Almirola and Allgaier appeared to be in a dead heat at the moment of caution. The sanctioning body reviewed video and photo evidence for about ten minutes before declaring Almirola the winner of the Subway Firecracker 250.
The win is officially Almirola’s second in the XFINITY Series, although the first one came under odd circumstances. In 2007, Almirola started a race at the Milwaukee Mile in a car intended for Denny Hamlin. Hamlin had been preparing for a Sprint Cup race at Sonoma earlier that day, and did not arrive at Milwaukee in time to start the race. Almirola led the opening laps of the race but ultimately yielded the car to Hamlin, who then went on to win the race. It was Almirola, though, who received credit for the victory since he was the one who started the event.
Nine years later, Almirola was happy to have a victory all his own.
“For me, this is my first XFINITY win,” Almirola said in victory lane. “I know I have a win, but there’s always been that asterisk next to it, and I’ve been dying to get back in victory lane in an XFINITY car, so that way I can have said that I’ve won in all three series without that asterisk next to my name.”
Before Almirola could celebrate, however, even he had to be sure that he was the winner.
“I knew it was close,” Almirola said. “I knew they wrecked behind us, and I was like ‘when are they gonna throw the caution?’ I knew I was in front of them, man, this is crazy.”
Crazy would be a good word to describe the entire race. Almirola, Allgaier, and the other drivers who ultimately contended for the win had to survive four wrecks in the first half of the race. Allgaier’s car got damaged in the biggest of those four, which broke out on lap 15 when Brennan Poole bumped Darrell Wallace, Jr. into a spin. The crash knocked outside second-place starter Austin Dillon out of contention, as well as his teammate Brandon Jones. Poole and Wallace were able to continue, as were Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones. The wreck damaged 14 cars all together.
Neither Erik Jones nor Suarez was out of the woods. Jones blew a tire on lap 24 and went sliding down the backstretch, inflicting more damage to his No. 20 car. Suarez had a much more serious accident on lap 49 when he slid off the exit of turn two and pounded the inside wall. Suarez’s night was over, but he maintains the NXS points lead by six over Elliott Sadler.
Sadler was at the forefront of the major storyline in the race’s second half. He made several pit stops under the Suarez caution, along with JR Motorsports teammates Allgaier and Chase Elliott. The goal for the JRM cars was to go the rest of the race, another 47 laps, without making another pit stop. The gamble appeared to pay off after Ryan Ellis spun on lap 67. When the leaders made pit stops under the ensuing caution, Allgaier took over the lead.
Meanwhile, Almirola worked his way into contention as the race wound down. He would swap the lead with Sadler, Elliott, and Joey Logano over the next green flag run before polestar David Ragan retook the top spot on lap 88. With five laps to go, Ragan, Almirola, and Sadler held the top three positions and were closely pursued by Jones and Wallace, who had managed to bounce back from their early race troubles.
A crash on lap 97 involving Poole and David Starr set up an overtime scenario. Sadler was forced to give up the third spot under caution when his No. 1 car ran low on fuel. With Sadler pitting, Allgaier was able to restart in fourth, directly behind Almirola. Both drivers drafted past Ragan on the final lap before the crash unfolded. Ragan triggered the pileup after attempting to block Jeff Green, setting off a melee that collected eight drivers. Hard hits from Wallace and Jeremy Clements, whose car briefly got airborne on the backstretch, drew the race-ending caution flag from NASCAR.
Allgaier attempted to pass Almirola as the crash unfolded and might have won if the caution flag came a few seconds later.
“When you lose ‘em by that little bit, it definitely is frustrating,” Allgaier said. “When you can be disappointed with second, though, it’s still a good day.”
“We’ll keep digging,” Allgaier continued. “At some point we’ve gotta, maybe, pull one of these off.”
Allgaier is still seeking his first win of 2016, but he currently sits fourth in points, 37 behind Suarez. Sadler remains second in points after his late pit stop relegated him to an 18th place finish. Ty Dillon is third, 16 points behind Suarez. Dillon was another victim of the last lap accident, leaving him 14th at the conclusion of the race.
Veteran Brendan Gaughan had one of his finest runs of the season. Gaughan missed all the wrecks and was fighting for a spot in the top five just past the halfway point before he got shuffled out of the draft. Gaughan rebounded in the closing laps and worked his way back to fifth place by the end of the night.
Another driver who had an uneventful but productive race was Ryan Reed. Reed avoided the last lap chaos and scored a sixth place finish. Not only is that Reed’s best result of the year, but he also snapped a string of 46 races without a top ten finish, stretching back to his win at Daytona in February of 2015.
Darrell Wallace, Jr. had another promising run come undone by late-race misfortune. The lap 15 crash was the first hurdle of the night for the No. 6 team, but Wallace was still in contention as the race wound down. Yet Wallace was on the same fuel strategy as Sadler. As Wallace rolled around under caution trying to save fuel, NASCAR deemed that he did not maintain appropriate speed and ordered him to restart in fifth. The directive from NASCAR essentially made Wallace swap positions with Allgaier.
While Allgaier went on to nearly win the race, Wallace got collected in the last lap crash, leaving him with a 20th place finish on a night that could have ended with a much better result. Wallace was none too happy after the race and voiced his displeasure with NASCAR’s officiating on Twitter, comparing the sanctioning body to “muppets.”
Take your pick. Daniel Suarez had his worst finish of the season by far after crashing twice before the race reached halfway. Brandon Jones spent most of his race riding around in a smashed up car after the lap 15 crash. Justin Marks, who cannot seem to catch a break, did not return to the race after that accident. Ray Black, Jr. fared worst of all after taking a hard hit in the first crash of the evening on lap nine. Daytona had no shortage of mangled cars on Friday night.
Underdog Performance(s) of the Race
Ryan Sieg is routinely the subject of this section, but he turned in his best performance of the season at Daytona by finishing third. Sieg was quiet for most of the race but drafted into the top five with Logano during the overtime laps and got a front row seat for the photo finish. Sieg matched his career-best result, which came at Daytona two years ago, and vaulted to 11th in the points standings, 16 markers above the Chase cutoff.
An even bigger surprise in the top ten was Jeff Green. Driving for Rick Ware, the former series champion finished seventh, logging his first top ten finish since 2005.
Double Duty Interlopers
Almirola wound up carrying the banner for the Sprint Cup regulars in Friday’s race. Logano had the most dominant car of the race, leading 46 of 103 laps. He often lost ground on pit road throughout the night, but could easily make up positions once the race went back to green. However, Logano lost the lead for good on lap 82 when he attempted to block Elliott and shoved him below the yellow line. Logano got shuffled out of draft and was stuck back in the pack during the closing laps. He was able to dodge the last lap crash and finish fourth.
Elliott paced the field for five circuits after Logano faded, only to get shuffled out of the draft himself. He was not able to complete the sweep at Daytona and finished ninth.
Despite starting on the pole, Ragan looked strongest at the end of the race. The BK racing driver was filling in for Matt Tifft, who underwent surgery on Friday to have a brain tumor removed. Ragan looked as if he would take the No. 18 car to yet another victory for Joe Gibbs Racing. However, the lap 97 crash bunched up the field and put Ragan’s chances at victory in jeopardy. He eventually got separated from drafting partner Erik Jones and was relegated to 21st after crashing on the final lap.
“I hated the fact that I got credit for that (win); I did not like that… I didn’t feel like I deserved to win that race because I wasn’t in the car when the race was over, but tonight I was.” –Aric Almirola, recalling his first NXS “victory” at Milwaukee
“I guess it just depends on which replay you look at. We definitely had the momentum down the back there and kind of stalled out in the middle of (turns) three and four, and then felt like we had it coming back again towards the start/finish line.” –Justin Allgaier on the chaotic last lap
“I saw that the 98 and the 7 had a decent run, but I thought I could block the very top, and you only have so much room, and that’s just a product of speedway racing.” –David Ragan describing his late-race moves
“It’s just a product of guys trying too hard, too early for a competition caution ten laps from now.” –Austin Dillon after getting collected in the lap 15 crash
The Final Word
Almirola found his way back to victory lane, both in Daytona and the XFINITY Series. It was a redemptive win for Almirola and the Biagi team, who each faced uncertainty about their futures in NASCAR not long ago. In the midst of a disappointing Sprint Cup season, the Daytona win may go down as the highlight of Almirola’s year. There is no more asterisk when it comes to his status as an NXS winner or a winner in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series.
Unfortunately, Almirola’s big win after a night of intense racing will probably be overshadowed by NASCAR’s questionable officiating in the closing laps. There is no denying that the last lap crash was serious, but fans have every right to wonder why NASCAR waited to throw the caution as long as they did. If safety was the primary concern, why not throw the caution flag when Clements got airborne, or when Wallace smacked the inside wall? At that point, the leaders were entering turn three. Instead, the lights went yellow at a seemingly arbitrary moment, a moment when the crash appeared to be over and the leaders were about five seconds from the finish line.
Despite the pleas of NBC’s commentators for fans to excuse the odd finish, the timing of the last caution did not do NASCAR any favors. On a race weekend in which rules had a high potential to overshadow the racing product, it was not the “no pushing” rule or even the yellow line rule that generated controversy, but another unfortunately-timed caution that determined who went to victory lane. It is time for NASCAR to go back to the drawing board and find a way to guarantee fans a green flag finish without risking the safety of the drivers.
The XFINITY Series will tackle a resurfaced Kentucky Speedway on Friday, July 8th for the Alsco 300. Race coverage begins at 8:30 PM on NBCSN.