The NASCAR Cup Series took on New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18. The race at the Magic Mile started with a rain delay and ended with a race against the sunset. Aric Almirola ultimately turned in a wildly impressive performance and capped off the weekend with a stunning win under the sunset.
Almirola entered the race 27th in points and in need of a win to reach the playoffs. He did not contend for the top spot during the first two stages, but he showcased the best speed during the final stage. Almirola jumped to the front of the pack and then proceeded to hold off Christopher Bell for the rest of the shortened race.
With his third-career win, Almirola locked up a spot in the playoffs. He leapfrogged more than a dozen other drivers and knocked Austin Dillon out of the playoff picture. Almirola also rebounded from a year filled with crashes, mechanical issues, and heartbreak.
Ford Drivers Bounced Back in a Major Way
While several Ford drivers contended for wins on a weekly basis in 2020, they have struggled mightily during the 2021 season. Kevin Harvick entered the July 18 race without a single trip to Victory Lane while defending Rookie of the Year Cole Custer sat 28th in points. Similarly, Almirola (27th in points), rookie Chase Briscoe (23rd in points), and DiBenedetto (18th in points) all struggled to put together strong performances on a consistent basis.
The issues also extended to the Ford drivers that had reached Victory Lane. Team Penske’s trio of stars — Joey Logano, Keselowski, and Ryan Blaney — all won races early in the season but struggled in many races after punching their tickets to the playoffs while the Toyota and Chevrolet drivers excelled.
The trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway completely changed the narrative. The fleet of Ford Mustangs headed to the 1.058-mile oval with the 750-horsepower package and battled with each other for the checkered flag. DiBenedetto, Almirola, Keselowski, Blaney, and Harvick all raced in the top 10. Logano, who received a two-lap penalty, fought his way back into contention with two free passes and raced in the top 10 during the final stage.
Denny Hamlin Struggled at One of His Best Tracks
Heading toward the weekend, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry had very favorable odds to take the checkered flag. He has been one of the best drivers at the 1.058-mile oval throughout his career, winning three times and posting 11 top-five finishes. However, he had several issues during the July 18 race.
Following a spin early and a red flag stop that lasted nearly two hours, Hamlin showcased impressive speed. He raced in the top 10 for much of the race and even lined up on the front row next to Harvick during multiple restarts. Though the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang easily jumped out in front as Hamlin struggled with getting off the line.
The biggest issue for Hamlin arose at the end of Stage 2. He headed to pit road during the stage break for fresh Goodyear tires. However, he had to make a second trip down due to a missed lug nut. This penalty dropped him from the top 10 to 26th overall.
This penalty was the second in two straight races for Hamlin and the No. 11 team. The veteran driver also received a speeding on pit road penalty late during the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway that dropped him out of contention for a win.
With the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway complete, the drivers will now have two weeks off to recuperate before the final stretch. The next race on the schedule will take place at Watkins Glen on Aug. 8, after NBC Sports completes its coverage of the Olympics.