Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola raced to Victory Lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, July 18. He captured his first win away from a superspeedway and punched his ticket to the playoffs. Almirola also disrupted the playoff standings in the process.
The driver of the No. 10 Ford Mustang entered the weekend 27th in points. He was midway through what he called “the crappiest year ever” during an interview with NBC Sports. The only way that Almirola could reach the playoffs in the few remaining regular-season races was to win. He did just that and knocked Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon below the cut line.
Prior to Almirola’s victory, Dillon sat 104 points above the cut line. Harvick (+159) and Hamlin (+369) were just above him. Teammate Tyler Reddick (+96) held on to the final spot in the standings. Following the race, Dillon dropped to five points below the cut line while Reddick moved to only five points above. Similarly, Harvick and Hamlin lost some crucial points.
Only Three Spots Remain in the Playoff Field
With Almirola capturing his first win of the season, he took another playoff spot off the board. There are now only three more remaining, which the drivers will fight over during the final four regular-season races. They will have to contend with two road courses, the fastest track in NASCAR (Michigan), and Daytona International Speedway.
For Dillon, he will have to strive for success at the two oval tracks. He has traditionally struggled at road courses with zero top-10 finishes in his Cup Series career. However, he has past success at both Daytona International Speedway and Michigan. He won the Daytona 500 in 2018, and he has eight total top-10 finishes at the superspeedway.
The driver of the No. 3 RCR Chevrolet Camaro has not won at Michigan, but he still has contended in past races. He has made 17 starts at the two-mile oval with two top-five finishes and five top-10s. His best outings were a pair of fourth-place runs (2015, 2018).
Reddick, on the other hand, has fewer Cup Series starts at the remaining tracks. He has only competed at Daytona four times and Michigan twice during his young career, and he has never faced off with the series best drivers at Watkins Glen. Though he has a top-five finish at the road course from his Xfinity Series career.
In order to maintain his hold on the final playoff spot, Reddick will have to continue contending for top-10 finishes at tracks where he has less experience. He will also have to hope that no more drivers win their first race of the season before the playoffs begin. He would be the next to drop out of the picture if Matt DiBenedetto, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, or any other bubble driver reached Victory Lane.
Almirola Continued the Recent Trend of Playoff Disruption
The driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang is only the latest man to reach Victory Lane and shake up the playoff picture in a major way. He follows Kurt Busch, who did something similar at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 11.
The driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing entered the Georgia race in the final playoff spot and in need of a strong performance to keep pace with Dillon and Reddick. Busch turned in his best outing of the year, fighting off his brother Kyle for a dramatic win. He secured his spot in the playoffs and leapfrogged both Richard Childress Racing drivers.
Unlike Almirola, Busch did not knock anyone below the cut line with his win. He just hurt Reddick and Dillon’s chances at reaching the playoffs. The pair dropped to the final two spots and faced increasing uncertainty about their respective futures. One week later, they watched as Almirola won his first race of the season. Now Dillon and Reddick will head to Watkins Glen desperate for points.