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Sunday's motors: Under darkness, Almirola pulls off shocker at New Hampshire

Associated Press

Loudon, N.H. — Aric Almirola carried the weight of a winless season while chasing a playoff berth that seemed implausible for a driver buried deep in the standings on a Stewart-Haas Racing program that had yet to take a checkered flag.

His confidence sagged. The pressure tightened on the No. 10 team.

Aric Almirola smiles as he holds up a giant lobster after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, July 18, 2021, in Loudon, N.H. At left is Dave McGrath, general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

With darkness falling at New Hampshire, Almirola saw his season suddenly come into focus. Almirola sprung to life late Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and pulled off the surprise victory, a vital boost for SHR, Ford and another shakeup of the NASCAR playoff picture.

“Coming into this race, we never gave anybody a reason to pick us,” Almirola said. “It feels good to be the underdog and come out of nowhere and have the race car we did.”

Almirola snapped a 98-race winless streak and added New Hampshire to a rain-shortened win at Daytona in 2014 and Talladega in 2018 for his third victory in 374 races.

And he’s in the playoffs.

Almirola was the latest surprise winner and played havoc with the playoff picture with only four races left before the 16-driver field is set. Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick are among the drivers who could use a win and clinch a berth.

The race was delayed nearly two hours by rain and NASCAR called it early due to darkness, leaving it eight laps shy of its scheduled conclusion.

New Hampshire was scheduled for 301 laps and 318.46 miles. Almirola took the checkered in 293 laps. He broke up the Team Penske party — Brad Keselowksi and Ryan Blaney had a fun back-and-forth for the lead at one point — and Christopher Bell could not catch him.

Bell won the Xfinty Series race Saturday and was second. Keselowski, Joey Logano and Blaney made it a 3-4-5 finish for Team Penske.

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“I felt like I probably had a little bit better pace than him, able to get to him,” Bell said. “Lapped cars were giving him a bad time. If I was able to get to him, it was going to be a heck of a race.

Almirola rested his head on the car in almost stunned disbelief that he clinched his playoff spot.

“There is no doubt we have struggled,” Almirola said. “But guess what? We’re going playoff racing.”

Almirola, who entered 27th in the points standings, was the first driver out of the SHR pack that includes Kevin Harvick, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe to take the checkered flag. Almirola had only two top 10s this season. Harvick was sixth and led a race-high 66 laps.

Ford drivers took five of the top six spots.

More: Bell wins third New Hampshire race in Xfinity

Almirola said there was “enough light” to keep racing to the scheduled finish.

NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller defended the decision to shorten the race.

“We just felt like it was getting too dark and needed to call it. It’s just as simple as that,” he said. “Completely based on raceability. “

NASCAR started the race under wet conditions and that decision turned into a disaster when Kyle Busch, the polesitter, spun on the slick track and wrecked only six laps into the race. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin also spun and the red flag was waved to stop the race. Truex and Hamlin returned to race. Busch’s race in the No. 18 Toyota was over and he bit his tongue on NASCAR’s call to start the race.

“It never should have gone green to begin with, but then it kept getting worse and worse lap over lap,” Busch said. “We’ve been talking about it for two laps that it was raining. There’s no sense in saying what I want to say, it doesn’t do you any good.”

Hamlin said, “this is just a bad look.”

NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said on NBC Sports races have started in the mist but the track “got slick in a hurry."

Formula 1

Silverstone, England — Lewis Hamilton roared back from a first-lap incident that sent championship leader Max Verstappen to the hospital and overcame a 10-second penalty to win the British Grand Prix and reignite his title defense on Sunday.

The seven-time champion won at his home track to snap a run of five races without a victory and slash the gap to Verstappen at the top of the drivers’ championship from 33 points to eight.

“Did I think that we would ever be back in the title fight? I prayed and hoped for it but I thought that it would be a long slog to try and regain any of the points,” Hamilton said. "We’re now closer, he’s still got quite a few points ahead but the race is on.”

This season's title battle boiled over on one of the hottest days of the year, in front of 140,000 fans at a packed Silverstone, with the terrifying incident that saw the race red-flagged and Hamilton given a penalty.

And the 23-year-old Verstappen fuming in hospital in Coventry.

“Glad I’m ok. Very disappointed with being taken out like this,” Verstappen posted on Twitter. "The penalty given does not help us and doesn’t do justice to the dangerous move Lewis made on track.

“Watching the celebrations while still in hospital is disrespectful and unsportsmanlike behavior but we move on.”

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Verstappen left the hospital later Sunday "without any major injuries,” his Red Bull team said.

Hamilton dropped from second to fifth as he served his penalty but he swiftly picked up two spots when he returned to the track and then Valtteri Bottas was ordered to move out of his Mercedes teammate's way.

That gave Hamilton 11 laps to chase down leader Charles Leclerc in a Ferrari and he made the pass for the win with just two laps to go — and on the same corner where he had tangled with Verstappen. The British driver was cheered on to his eighth career victory at Silverstone by the passionate home fans.

“What a great job guys. Thank you so much for continuing to push this year, I am so inspired by you guys. There’s a long way to go but I believe in you guys,” Hamilton said on team radio before driving a victory lap brandishing the British flag.

Then he climbed the rail and ran toward the grandstands waving the flag to his adoring crowd.

Verstappen crashed out of the race after clashing with Hamilton, with the Dutchman spinning hard into a barrier with an impact which registered at 51G.

“With Max, you know he’s very aggressive. And then today, I mean I was fully alongside him, and I didn’t have enough space," Hamilton said after the race.

The race was red-flagged to allow for repairs to the tire barrier. Verstappen, wobbly as he climbed from his car, was initially seen in the Silverstone medical center but then transported to a local hospital for further evaluation.

“He’s (Hamilton) a world champion, he shouldn’t be making maneuvers like that. It’s unacceptable," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "I hope Lewis is very happy with himself ... I’m just very disappointed that a driver of his caliber should make such a move. It’s dangerous. It looked desperate. And he’s put a competitor, thankfully uninjured, in hospital. For me, that’s a hollow victory.”

Verstappen beat Hamilton at the start for the second day in a row at Silverstone and the two title contenders furiously zigzagged for position. The drivers touched at least twice as Hamilton tried to slip past Verstappen for the lead.

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Hamilton’s front wheel touched Verstappen’s rear wheel the second time the drivers made contact, and the Red Bull careened off course, through the gravel and into the tire barrier. A tire from Verstappen’s car bounced off the car during the spin.

Leclerc took over the lead and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff sprinted to race control to argue against any penalty to his driver. Hamilton told his Mercedes team the position in the corner was his and he was not to blame.

“I was ahead going in there, man,” Hamilton radioed. “I was fully alongside him, my line. Yeah, he turned in on me, man”

Following a delay of 45 minutes the race restarted with Hamilton starting from second after Leclerc passed him in the moments after his collision with Verstappen.

Hamilton was then slapped with a 10-second penalty which he served at his pit stop on lap 27 of 52. That dropped him to fourth behind Lando Norris, Bottas and a dozen seconds adrift of Leclerc.

Hamilton passed Norris on lap 31 before Bottas was ordered out his way by Mercedes. The world champion then set about hunting Leclerc with the gap reduced to just 1.5 seconds with four laps to run.

On lap 50 of 52, Hamilton put his Mercedes on the inside of Leclerc’s Ferrari through Copse before backing out of the move, but the Monegasque ran wide and Hamilton assumed the lead.

He crossed the line 3.8 seconds clear of Leclerc with Bottas completing the podium and Norris finishing fourth.

It was Leclerc’s best finish since coming second at the season-opening race in Austria in 2020 and his first podium since third place at Silverstone last year.

NHRA 

Defending series champion Matt Hagan raced to his first victory at Bandimere Speedway, beating Alexis DeJoria in the Funny Car final Sunday in the Mile-High NHRA Nationals.

Hagan beat DeJoria with a 4.105-second pass at 305.70 mph in a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye for his first victory of the year and 37th overall.

“This mountain has chewed me up and spit me out several years in a row,” Hagan said. “I’m just so glad to pull this win out. I’ve been trying to get this trophy for so long. It’s an important race and it’s one of those things where we finally got it done. My heart was beating out of my chest there in the finals. It felt like I was running for a championship. I’m glad we got it done and I’m just blessed here today.”

Steve Torrence won in Top Fuel, and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Torrence beat Joey Haas with a 3.860 at 320.36. He has won four of the past five events and has five victories this season and 45 overall.

Smith topped Eddie Krawiec with a 7.118 at 189.04 on the Denso/Stockseth Racing Buell for his second straight victory and third of the season.