In the closing laps of what became the Foxwoods Resort Casino 293, the stakes couldn’t have been clearer for Aric Almirola.

Brad Keselowski had undercut Almirola and Penske teammate Ryan Blaney to take the lead, but the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 was inching back towards the front with his entire season … and perhaps … career on the line.

It’s been a miserable campaign for Stewart-Haas, but especially for its 15-year veteran driving the Smithfield Foods Ford Mustang.

Almirola entered the weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway 27th in the championship standings and well out of a playoff spot. In a contract year and the Next Gen car looming over the horizon, only a victory could reverse the fortunes of the 34-year-old.

Spotter Joel Edmonds wouldn’t let him forget it either.

“Win at all costs”
“For all the marbles right here.”
“He’s in your crosshairs now.”

Talk about pressure, especially for someone who has only two career victories at the highest level, and neither of them coming on anything other than a superspeedway.

“My wife hates the fact that I’ve only won at restrictor plate races,” Almirola said after the race. “She’s told me for years, she’s like, ‘Honey, I know you always have a good shot when we go to Daytona or Talladega, but I want so badly want you to win somewhere else.’”

Yeah, Aric too, who had actually started to wonder if maybe he was the weak link on his own team.

“People are just always like, ‘Man, you got to keep your head up, you got to have confidence,’ but that’s based on results,” Almirola said. “I mean, you can’t just fake that stuff.”

Almirola passed Blaney straight-up before the final green flag pit stop and was able to pick off Keselowski too, but the pressure didn’t end there.

Because the race was delayed by a messy start, and an hourish rain delay, the finish was up against dusk. NASCAR reserved the right, at any time, to tell drivers that there would be only 10 laps to go.

Naturally, a bunch of teams stayed out hoping to have track position in the case of a race-ending caution.

Meanwhile, with 20 laps to go, Christopher Bell is starting to close on Almirola and the No. 10 team isn’t sure if they can make it to the finish without losing the lead.

Translation — losing the playoff spot, a chance to satisfy Smithfield Foods and bosses Gene Haas and Tony Stewart.

“It’s plenty dark now,” Almirola says with 20 to go.
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Edmonds concurred.

Race control seemed to think so too, making that judgement call with 17 to go that there were now 10 laps remaining, and the remaining gamblers came down pit road.

Suddenly the runway was much shorter for Almirola if he could just make it to the end. Naturally, there was one more bit of pressure to overcome in the form of Austin Dillon, who had the most to lose if Almirola somehow upset his way into the playoffs.

Dillon entered New Hampshire over 100 points ahead of the playoff cutoff, but an Almirola win combined with getting passed in the standings by Tyler Reddick would mean the iconic No. 3 team would be the first on the provisional cutoff with four races remaining.

He wasn’t going to make it easy for Almirola to hold off Bell, holding up the leader for five laps before the pass was made.

“Find a way to get around this clown,” Edmonds said in the heat of the moment.

Almirola did, the clock running out with Bell having reached the figurative red zone, but unable to punch the figurative ball across the pylons.

This changes everything.

“Nobody should have thought that we were going to win,” Almirola said. “Only our race team should have thought that or believed that. I mean, based on our performance especially this year on the majority of the racetracks, we haven’t been a contender to win. …

“So, yeah, coming into this race we never really gave anybody a reason to pick us, to be completely honest. I know that. It feels good to be the underdog and kind of come out of nowhere and have a race car like we did, kind of put it to ’em at the end of the race and drive off and go win this race.”

The Richard Childress Racing drivers, Reddick and Dillon are now in the throes of a playoff battle, in which another new winner over the next three races could leave them both on the outside looking in. Oh, by the way, three of the four are a pair of road courses and a superspeedway.

That’s not Almirola’s problem anymore, now (probably) locked into the playoffs (barring four new winners that is) and focusing on chasing a championship for a fourth consecutive season.

A positive is that Almirola has been competitive on the 750 horsepower, low downforce tracks — the entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization struggling on the 555 high downforce tracks. The playoffs are primarily composed of the low downforce tracks.

“I think just our 750 package has been good,” Almirola said. “This racetrack has been one of our best as an organization. … So, yeah, I think coming here everything kind of lined up perfectly, and we had a fast race car, and finally we capitalized on that. I’ve had fast race cars here and other places, too, and we’ve had bad pit stops, loose wheels, late-race cautions, just a lot of different things happen that we’ve let it slip away.

“Today we were able to capitalize and get the job done.”

Maybe that means convincing Smithfield Foods to stay. Maybe that means convincing Stewart-Haas to let him stay.

“This is the best way I know how to say thank you for everything that they’ve done for me and my career,” Almirola said. “I wouldn’t have a job and I wouldn’t be driving a race car right now if Smithfield Foods had not supported me for the last 10 years. It has been a phenomenal relationship. I owe them the world.

“Unfortunately, I can’t give them the world, but I can give them a race win every once in a while, and today we were able to do that.”

Maybe it’s just one more run at the highest level, and that’s enough, but this had to happen first.

Almirola made it happen.

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