Who … should you be talking about after the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301?
It was going to take a Hail Mary for Aric Almirola to make the 2021 playoffs. The No. 10 team has struggled for any kind of a foothold this year, earning just two top-10 finishes coming into Sunday’s (July 18) race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
But with just four races remaining before the playoffs, Almirola delivered.
On a day when the Ford camp was the strongest it’s been in months, Almirola was the class of the field. As night fell around him, the No. 10 ran a flawless final stage to claim the win. Almirola battled the likes of teammate Kevin Harvick, defending race winner Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin to claw his way to the top spot, then defend it as Christopher Bell charged in the final laps.
But darkness was on Almirola’s side, catching a break as NASCAR’s hand was forced to cut the race short by eight laps. There were plenty of lights shining down on him in victory lane.
Honorable Mention: Early issues can spell a long day for a team. Often, early trouble means logging laps, out of contention and just needing to salvage whatever is left to take home from the weekend.
For a pair of drivers on Sunday, patience and pit work paid off.
Joey Logano was penalized after the rain delay because once the cars were refired, he immediately felt a problem with the throttle linkage, and a crewman reached through a cowl flap to try to find it. The instinct was correct; there was something there, and Logano had to pit when the field rolled off to fix it. Performance aside, the team felt there was the danger of the throttle hanging open on Logano, something that has happened twice at NHMS with deadly consequences. But the crewman originally tried to find the problem under the red flag, leading to a two-lap penalty. Logano still made up both laps and finished fourth, his best result since Sonoma Raceway.
Martin Truex Jr. was running second when the rain came and suffered significant damage to the No. 19 Toyota when he spun in the moisture. However, his team made repairs without losing a lap and got Truex back on track with just five seconds remaining on the damaged vehicle clock. From there, Truex kept it on the lead lap all day, finishing a respectable 12th.
What … is the buzz about?
There’s no question that NASCAR made the wrong call to start the race when it did, as drivers were reporting a wet track even before the green flag. The mistake cost Kyle Busch’s entire day and a shot at a win for Truex as both bore the brunt of a brief shower.
Was it a bad call? Sure it was, and callous, too, because it was a safety issue. With drivers making news about not being consulted on major decisions, NASCAR officiating looks bad because drivers were clear on the radio that the track wasn’t ready.
It’s also the symptom of a larger problem: continued insistence on late afternoon start times. Had the race began at 1 p.m. ET, it would have been halfway by the time that shower fell and maybe a delay was less urgent. Loudon has no lights, so NASCAR obviously felt it was go time (plus the radar was clear).
NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller addressed the start after the race, stating the sport takes driver radio transmissions into account. It didn’t seem like that happened in this case. While many drivers did express concern, NASCAR wasn’t listening and felt it was safe to get underway.
Anything that calls safety into question is not a good thing, and Sunday’s start was no exception. At some point, NASCAR needs to build wiggle room into the schedule. Starting races earlier isn’t just about television, it’s about practicality.
Where … did the other key players wind up in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301?
Polesitter Kyle Busch had his day end before it began. Scored for just eight laps, Busch’s car was destroyed as he slipped on a wet track and backed into the turn 1 wall. He showed remarkable restraint in post-race comments afterward, stopping short of saying some of the things he probably had a right to say. Busch is solidly in the playoffs and knows the No. 18 Toyota has been the one to beat recently, but his 37th-place result still had to sting.
Cup champion Chase Elliott led twice for 53 laps, at times looking like he had the car to beat, but the final segment and changing conditions got the better of the No. 9 team. Elliott fell to 18th at the checkers, a lap off the pace.
Defending race winner Brad Keselowski didn’t leave anything on the table defending his lobster trophy, and he made a show of things, charging to second in stage one before winning stage two. Late pit stops and just a little falloff relegated him to third, but with changes on the horizon, Keselowski showed he’s still a contender.
When … was the moment of truth in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301?
It’s really hard to pass at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Little passing at the front and lack of interest by the broadcast in showing any passing anywhere else generally makes for a race that leaves viewers unsatisfied.
But give credit where it’s due. This weekend’s race was good. 14 official lead changes among 10 drivers, many of whom needed a good performance, made for a compelling show. Almirola’s victory was no sure thing; with 100 laps to go, it didn’t seem like a thing at all.
The top 10 was littered with those drivers who needed a top finish for one reason or another. The Team Penske cars have been a tick behind but all finished in the top five Sunday. Harvick led more laps (66) than he’s led all year. Ross Chastain (eighth) continues to impress while racing for a job after the sale of Chip Ganassi Racing. Hamlin (10th) is looking at the regular season point lead to secure his playoff spot.
There was a lot to like about the afternoon. So it’s time to lose the conception that a race is boring if the margin of victory is more than half-a-car length. It was a good event and, heading into a lengthy break, it’s good momentum for NASCAR entering the homestretch of the regular season.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
With the postponed Olympics getting underway, NASCAR has a two-week summer break. That would normally be unheard of in the sport, but television conflicts forced NASCAR’s hand this time around.
The break will give teams a chance to work. For the playoff-bound, it means preparing those cars, and for the rest of the field, it gives them a chance to catch up or concentrate on making a playoff run, particularly at wild-card races like Daytona International Speedway.
But will it be a momentum-killer for the teams who have been clicking lately? It could go either way, and late summer is certainly when teams want everything in their favor.
Don’t expect the break to necessarily mean a break from all things racing. Keselowski says he’ll have an announcement this week. Rumors are swirling about other possible transactions with teams preparing for a new Next Gen racecar. If an owner is looking to cut their losses and get out of the game, the time would certainly seem ripe, and there are people looking to break into the Cup Series as well as owners.
That means Silly Season could actually heat up while the engines are silent. There are marketable drivers looking for seats, teams looking for charters with expansion on their minds, and the new car looming over it all. NASCAR said teams should be able to start testing the car by August but it certainly doesn’t seem like that timeline will happen, especially with the jury still out on its safety numbers. If the preliminary data in that area was great, it seems like NASCAR would be shouting it to the rooftops even before getting more information from outside sources.
There’s a lot going on in the sport right now, and with two weeks to concentrate on the future, the landscape could be different by the time the cars are back on track at Watkins Glen.
How … crazy did the playoff race just get?
If you are having a hard time keeping up with the playoff scenarios, you aren’t alone. Usually, by this time, the field is all but set. This year, it’s anything but. Almirola’s win knocks Austin Dillon off the bubble, but he trails Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick by just five points, so that spot could swap hands at any time.
There are now 13 drivers with wins. Four new winners in the next four races would knock at least one winner out, and that would be Almirola based on points. Michael McDowell would also be in danger in that scenario if Hamlin keeps the point lead after Daytona but doesn’t win because the regular season point leader is guaranteed a spot. If Hamlin isn’t the regular season champ, even he could fall out of contention. So could a winless Harvick, who, along with Hamlin and Reddick, are the only winless playoff contenders left.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see more than two more winners, but it’s not an impossibility that we could see more. Will 2021 go down as the most competitive season in recent memory?