By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was just 0.007 seconds shy of capturing his first NASCAR Cup Series win since 2017 while Aric Almirola took a wild slide to cross the line in third during Monday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Both drivers played a pivotal role on the overtime finish, but ultimately ended up tangling each other while fighting for the win.
Not only that, but also trying to save fuel. It took a backseat once the field took the white flag, as the new word became charge. Kevin Harvick led the way while Stenhouse and Almirola began working together coming down the backstretch and began moving forward.
Then comes Ryan Blaney, who was on the bottom in third behind leader Harvick and second-place Denny Hamlin. He went up the middle which happened to be Stenhouse and Almirola’s lane, but was able to get a strong run on Harvick and took the lead heading into Turn 3.
Almirola would fall out of contention, but Stenhouse gained tremendous drafting help by Erik Jones as they pushed Harvick in order to get by Blaney, but Stenhouse pulled an audible and went low to Blaney’s leading lane.
The lead pack hit the tri-oval with Stenhouse still running in second, but a hard charging Jones got a push by John Hunter Nemechek, spicing everything up. Blaney’s blocked Jones’ momentum, resulting contact between them. Jones got the worst end of the deal as he slammed the Turn 4 wall, also collecting Nemechek.
Suddenly, Almirola had one last charge towards the front until Stenhouse turned him around with the start/finish line near their sights. Stenhouse came up shy of beating Blaney while Almirola got third while saving his No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang from hitting the inside wall.
Almirola described the slide towards a top-five finish which marked his second straight top-five finish.
“I thought we had a shot to get our Smithfield Ford Mustang in Victory Lane. We had a really good car and our strategy was to stay out of trouble all day and be there at the end, and we were there at the end. It was close, but we just couldn’t get it done,” said Almirola.
“I was just shooting for whatever hole was open. Kind of ping-ponging and weaving my way through there. I got all the way to the front row and saw the 12 (Blaney) and 20 (Jones) side-by-side, side drafting and had a big head of steam on them. Honestly, I thought I was going to get the start/finish line before them. I was going so much faster than they were and I just barely got clipped by the 47 (Stenhouse) and spun across the start/finish line and got third,” Almirola added.
A third also marked Almirola’s best finish of 2020 and the fifth top-five at Talladega, the most he’s had at a single Cup track. With momentum on his side, he’s satisfied with the progress his Stewart-Haas Racing have recently made.
“I’m proud of all my guys on this team,” said Almirola. “We had a great week last week at Miami with a top five and leave here at Talladega with another top five, so we’ll keep building on that and it looks like the ball is going in the right direction for us.”
The 2017 GEICO 500 winner led three times for 5 of 190 laps en route to his best finish of the season and the third top-five after only having one last year.
“We were so close there at the end,” Stenhouse on the finish. “It was hard all day trying to break up the Penske cars and then there at the end, all the blue ovals (Ford) were together.”
Stenhouse admitted his restart wasn’t good and had a hard time trying to pick the ideal lane to fight for the win. It did created some disappointment, especially when it came down to the slightest of margins, but understands that there a lot of factors as to how a superspeedway race can go.
“It’s disappointing for sure. You work all day long, playing different scenarios out in your head and how you’re going to be the first one to cross the start/finish line. It does have a lot to do with all the other cars are racing. Who’s pushing you, how they can push you, and what moves they make,” said Stenhouse.
“A lot is in your control. A lot is circumstantial, but you just got to keep putting yourself in those positions every race, especially on the speedways to eventually get them to click off.
“When you got all the Fords there lined up, it was kind of tough. I didn’t feel like anybody was going to go with me. We ended up in the bottom lane by myself and it ended up working out to get back to second but definitely frustrating not to win.”
Despite this, he was pleased with how strong his No. 47 NOS Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE ran at Talladega, highlighted with a Stage 2 victory which also happened to be determined by inches. Due to this, Stenhouse now sits 20th in points with the regular season reaching its halfway point.
“Our No. 47 NOS Energy Drink Camaro ZL1 1LE was really fast all day,” said Stenhouse. “The boys brought a good one. I thought we had a shot there at the end, it just didn’t work out. But, all-in-all, a solid day.”
Following a rather clean superspeedway race, the Cup Series will start the second half of the regular season with a doubleheader at Pocono Raceway June 27-28.