Aric Almirola, who entered Sunday winless and 27th in points, now has a seat at the NASCAR Cup Series playoff table.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver held off Christopher Bell to win Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which ended eight laps short of its scheduled 301-lap distance due to oncoming darkness.
RESULTS: Where everybody finished at New Hampshire
With his first Cup win outside of a superspeedway, Almirola snapped a 98-race winless streak.
He also shocked the playoff landscape as NASCAR enters a two-week hiatus for the Tokyo Olympics.
His victory knocked Tyler Reddick to the 16th and final playoff position. Reddick holds that position by just five points over Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon.
But most important of all, Almirola changed the course of what had been one of his worst Cup seasons to date.
“… We’ve been through so much, and I’ve just stood the test and kept the faith,” Almirola told NBC Sports. “The team, everybody’s been working so hard. … My pit crew did a phenomenal job on pit road. All the guys that work on this car, they just keep fighting, they just keep digging, bringing the best race car they can bring every week.
“And there is no doubt that we have struggled, but guess what? We’re going playoff racing.”
A compelling race Sunday at the “Magic Mile” began in chaotic fashion. Six laps into the race, rain hit the track and led to a multi-car incident for Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Busch and Truex, running first and second at the time, both spun into the Turn 1 wall. Hamlin, racing for fifth, also spun but avoided the wall and continued on.
Busch was eliminated in the crash. Hamlin finished 10th. Truex Jr. salvaged 12th with a damaged car.
With the extended stoppage bringing darkness into play, NASCAR announced after the end of Stage 2 that the race would continue “until conditions dictate otherwise” and if the race had to be shortened, officials would announce 10 laps to go to the checkered flag with no overtime.
That announcement was ultimately made at Lap 282 with Almirola leading Bell. During the final 10-lap run, Almirola had to maneuver through lapped traffic – even driving Dillon up the race track with six laps to go – in order to stay ahead.
Team Penske’s trio of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Ryan Blaney
STAGE 2 WINNER: Brad Keselowski
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Logano’s fourth-place finish came after drawing a two-lap penalty. Logano was penalized after a Team Penske crew member removed debris from the linkage of Logano’s No. 2 Ford during the red flag. No. 2 team crew chief Paul Wolfe told NBC Sports that the debris had kept Logano from going full throttle during the opening laps and that the fix had to be made.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Kyle Busch ended up finishing last in the 37-car field after his misfortune with Mother Nature. The setback ends a four-race streak of top-three finishes that included a win in the second race at Pocono.
NOTABLE: Kyle Larson led the Hendrick Motorsports stable with a seventh-place finish. Sunday marked the first race with no Hendrick drivers among the top five finishers since the Bristol Dirt race in March.
NEXT: Sunday, Aug. 8 – Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Aric Almirola, who entered Sunday winless and 27th in points, now has a seat at the NASCAR Cup Series playoff table after his victory at New Hampshire.