By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
TALLADEGA, Ala. – “It’s a good day to be in a Ford,” Clint Bowyer said with a laugh after Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega.
“We finally got all four cars to the cream of the crop. Oh my gosh, was it awesome. To be able to work together like that, we could hold on. They get runs on you and everything else, but as long as you stayed your ground, stayed in line, we’d prevail.”
A good day indeed, as Stewart-Haas Racing Fords finished first and second, with Aric Almirola scoring his first win of the season, breaking a winless streak dating back to 2014 and Bowyer taking the runner-up spot. It was absolute domination by SHR, leading 154 of 193 laps on the day and sweeping the first two stages, as well as being headed towards a likely 1-2-3-4 sweep.
“I felt like I kept giving it away and I was so disappointed for all these guys behind me because they’re awesome,” said Almirola after the win. “They’re the best. I’m with the best team in the garage and I felt like I kept letting them down not winning a race. Today, the Good Lord was shining on us and we went to Victory Lane. We did it, finally.”
However, it was also a bittersweet day as Almirola and Bowyer were celebrating their finishes and others were left wondering “What If?”
As the laps wound down, Kurt Busch was out front and SHR held a substantial lead over the rest of the field. The only question was which of the four Fords would be ending their day in Victory Lane. When the caution flag flew for a crash on lap 187, everything changed.
With the race pushed to overtime and an extended caution period for clean-up, fuel became a concern for the drivers at the front of the field.
Kevin Harvick peeled off and headed down pit road, not having enough fuel to finish, while the other three gambled that they had enough in the tank to complete the final two laps. Two out of the three made it, Busch did not.
Busch, who led 108 laps on the day, would run out of fuel on the final lap, dropping from being in contention for the win to 14th, while Harvick finished the day in 28th.
Busch was happy about the overall performance of SHR at Talladega, but questioned the decision making by NASCAR in overtime as he was leading when a crash broke out after the white flag flew.
“It was a very different Talladega for me,” said Busch. “I really enjoyed leading the race, working with my teammates. I’m really happy a Stewart-Haas car won, but the four of us, I’ve never seen so much synergy.
“We knew we were gonna have to race when we got to Kansas. It would have been nice to have the win. We’re here to win. That’s what Monster Energy wants. Thanks to them. That’s what Team Haas wants. Thanks to Gene, Tony Stewart, everybody.
“But there were two human element calls there at the end. I don’t know why we ran an extra lap under yellow and why there wasn’t the yellow for a dispatch of an ambulance.”
With Busch out of the picture, the victory was up to Bowyer and Almirola to salvage things for SHR. Almirola, who had a heart-breaking finish last weekend at Dover, surged to the lead and held off all comers to score the win.
Bowyer, whose crash in the closing stages at Dover played a role in Almirola’s heartbreak last week, noted that it was almost poetic that the win came down to the two drivers.
“I was happy for Aric,” said Bowyer. “He had that race won last week, and it was me that brought out the caution. I feel like he got a little redemption there.”
Leaving Talladega, Almirola is locked into the next round of the playoffs after his win Sunday. Harvick sits third in points with a 63-point advantage on the cut-off, while Busch has a 30-point advantage and Bowyer is up 21 points.