As darkness fell on New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday, NASCAR had a decision to make.
Since the racetrack was not outfitted with lights, racing on the track at night was not an option. However, the race was already close to finishing its scheduled distance. Ultimately, NASCAR made the call that only 10 laps of racing remained, cutting eight laps off of the race’s scheduled distance. Whoever was the leader at the end of those 10 laps would be the winner of the Foxwoods Casino 301.
That winner was UCF alumnus Aric Almirola in his No. 10 Ford Mustang. The win was Almirola’s first of the season, third of his Cup series career, and snapped a (points race) winless streak in the Cup series dating back to Oct. 14, 2018.
“For so long, I’ve been so close to winning at some of these racetracks, like [New Hampshire Motor Speedway] and Dover [International Speedway], and I’ve let it slip away,” Almirola said in a post-race interview with NBC Sports. “I’ve honestly hated it, and my wife has hated it more than I have.”
The win also ends a streak of frustration for the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team in the 2021 season. On top of only one Top 5 and two Top 10s, Almirola entered the New Hampshire race with five DNFs (Did Not Finish), the 2nd-most of all Cup Series drivers this season, and an average finish of 22.8 in a field that can consist anywhere from 37-40 entries.
“There’s been so many people that have just continued to support us through the crappiest year ever,” Almirola said. “Man, this feels so good for them.”
With Almirola’s down performance this season, the win is also significant because it secures him a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
The Top 16 drivers qualify for the playoffs, which consist of all the season’s race winners, with the remaining spots being given to the winless drivers with the most points. Essentially, win a race, and a driver is likely guaranteed a playoff spot. Even after Sunday’s win, Almirola is 23rd in points (219 points behind the last driver above the cut line), so a win was the only way he could qualify for the playoffs.
“It is no doubt we have struggled, but guess what?” Almirola said. “We’re going playoff racing.”
NASCAR will be taking a two-week break while NBC broadcasts the Tokyo Olympics.
Almirola’s next race will be on Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen International. He is also scheduled to race in NASCAR’s final regular-season race at Daytona International Speedway on Aug. 28 before heading to Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on Sept. 5 for the first race of the playoffs.