NASCAR: Kyle Busch good to the last drop at Pocono finale

Kyle Busch had just enough fuel to win the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ weekend doubleheader at Pocono Raceway.

It wasn’t pretty, but Kyle Busch ended Hendrick Motorsports’ monopoly on the NASCAR Cup Series in style on Sunday afternoon at Pocono Raceway.

Busch fought an ill-handling No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and saved just enough fuel in the final stages to win the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350, the latter of a Cup Series weekend doubleheader in Pennsylvania. The win snaps a six-race winning streak for Rick Hendrick’s team, though Kyle Larson, the winner of three of those races, finished in the runner-up spot.

“Even though we were in the back and behind and having to come through and persevere through being stuck in fourth gear, no clutch, all that stuff it’s all burned out…It was awesome today,” Busch told NBC Sports after exiting his car. “Great job to my team. Thanks to (crew chief) Ben Beshore. Thanks to Matt (Tyrrell) the fuel guy for getting it full. That’s a big important one today. Really great to take home another checkered flag.

Shortly after the halfway mark of the 140-lap event at the “Tricky Triangle”, Busch’s No. 18 got stuck in fourth gear due to transmission issues. Things became so dire for the JGR team that a crew member had to enter the car during the caution at the end of the second stage in an ultimately futile attempt to fix it. Busch retreated to the rear of the field while at the onset of the third and final stage, the first two won by Martin Truex Jr. and HMS rep William Byron.

The race turned into a fuel mileage struggle after the caution came for Erik Jones’ encounter with the wall at lap 93. Busch joined several others on pit road, seeking to stretch out one final tank of fuel over 47 final laps. The fuel window at the 2.5-mile triangle is often open for 42-45 laps.

Contenders dwindled as they slowly ran out of fuel over the final laps. Byron threatened to keep the HMS streak alive but was forced to pit road with two laps to go. The stage was set for a battle between JGR Toyotas, but Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin ran dry on the final turn of the penultimate lap. Busch had just enough to finish the 140th circuit and capture the 59th Cup Series victory of his career. That gives him sole possession of ninth place on the all-time Cup Series wins list, breaking a tie with fellow Sunday racer Kevin Harvick.

Brad Keselowski led the most laps on Sunday with 31. He beat out Harvick for third, while Bubba Wallace rounded out the top five. Wallace’s finish is good for the first top-five/ten finish the history of 23XI Racing, the team co-owned by Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Independence Day, as the circuit makes its first run on the Road America road course in Elkhart Lake, WI since 1956 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman wins after Kyle Larson misfortune at Pocono

A Hendrick Motorsports civil war ended in heartbreak for Kyle Larson, whose teammate Alex Bowman sped off to victory.

Kyle Larson seemed well on his way to his fourth consecutive victory on Saturday afternoon at Pocono Raceway. The racing gods had other plans for him, but Hendrick Motorsports was nonetheless there to pick up the pieces.

Larson passed teammate Alex Bowman with four laps to in the Pocono Organics CBD 325, but lost a right-front tire on the white flag lap allowed Bowman to reassume the lead and earn HMS’ sixth consecutive team victory. The victory ends Larson’s personal winning streak at three races, but the No. 5 Chevrolet still managed to cross the finish line in ninth place. Bowman earned his third victory of the season in the No. 48 Chevrolet and beat out Kyle Busch, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Blaney, who rounded out the top five.

Saturday’s race was the first of the second annual Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, with the latter race being run tomorrow afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“The morale is obviously super high at Hendrick Motorsports. It’s really cool to see it that way. I think there’s not one thing,” Bowman said after his win “It’s each and every individual at Hendrick Motorsports from top to bottom in every department, it’s everybody at Chevrolet. Our engines are strong, bodies are great, chassis are great. The guys putting them together are doing a great job.”

Bowman lingered in the upper half of the field in the early stages of the 130-lap race while Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, broke the HMS monopoly on stage victories. Kyle earned the first stage victory (25 laps) while Kurt took the latter after lap 77. Larson, Saturday’s pole sitter, reassumed the leap on lap 84 from Kurt. During the third stage’s round of green flag pit stops, Bowman inserted himself into contention with a two-tire stop on lap 93, which put him in the top five. A caution for debris on lap 108 bunched the field together, giving Bowman his chance.

Situated in the front row after the choose lap, Bowman warded off Larson and Kyle Busch to take the lead before engaging in a civil war with his teammate. Larson made what was believed to be the winning pass with four laps to go, but lost his right front tire headed into the “Tricky Triangle’s” third and final turn, allowing Bowman to coast to his third win of the season and the fifth of his career. Bowman, who succeeded seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet this season, will go for the sweep tomorrow in the same vehicle.

“This is the strangest win I’ve ever been a part of,” Bowman said of his unusual victory. “I thought I was running second, which was still going to be a good day for us with how we struggled throughout the course of the day. Then he blows a tire, we win; can’t do a burnout because I have to race the car tomorrow. I typically stand on the roof of the car; can’t do that because I got to race the car tomorrow. I typically drink all the beers; can’t do all that because I got to race a car tomorrow.”

Larson’s bad luck cost him the honor of being NASCAR’s first winner of four consecutive points events since Johnson in 2007. He did secure his seventh straight top-ten finish but will start from the rear of the field tomorrow because the late wreck will force him to a backup car.

“It’s little bit laughable just because I can’t believe it,” Larson told NBC Sports in his interview after making the mandatory stop at the infield care center. “I hate that we didn’t get another win. It would have been cool to win five in a row. It just wasn’t meant to be I guess today. I felt something like right in the middle of the tunnel. I wasn’t quite sure what it was yet. (The tire) finally kind of shredded halfway through the short chute there.”

“I hate that we didn’t get the win, but cool that Alex still did, a Hendrick car with another win. Cool to keep (team owner Rick Hendrick’s) streak going.”

Race Notes

  • The top 20 of Saturday’s final ledger will be inverted to form the starting lineup for Sunday. Thus, 20th-place finisher Chris Buescher will start first next to Michael McDowell (19th). Buescher is currently four points out of the last playoff spot behind Kurt Busch.

 

  • The latest HMS victory comes days after the team announced that Jeff Gordon would become the vice chairman of the team. Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion, spent nearly his entire career in the No. 24 Chevrolet now piloted by Byron.

 

  • Cole Custer and Ryan Newman each failed to finish due to their involvement in on-track incidents.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Michael McDowell set a record no one wants to beat

An early crash in Sunday’s Pocono 350 earned McDowell and the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford a place in NASCAR Cup Series infamy.

History was made from each of the most extreme sides of Pocono Raceway’s Sunday scoring monitors.

Denny Hamlin’s win in the NASCAR Cup Series’ Pocono 350 not only put him in sole possession of 19th-place on the premier circuit’s all-time wins list, but also tied him with Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the 2.5-mile triangle. Conversely, the 40th and final car in the running order, that of Michael McDowell, set a Cup Series record for the most last-place finishes.

McDowell, driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford, ironically came in the final position for the 34th time, breaking a tie with Joe Nemechek. He was running 25th on the 15th of 140 laps when his right rear tire went down, putting him into the wall. McDowell had previously scraped the wall while battling the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott for position. The Front Row team immediately determined the damage was too great to carry on, relegating McDowell to the fateful finish.

The timing of the historic accident couldn’t be more unfortunate for McDowell and the underfunded No. 34. Save for a surprise playoff appearance in 2016 (brought upon by a weather-induced win by Chris Buescher in the No. 34), FRM has not placed a car within the top 20 in owners’ points since joining the series on a full-time basis in 2009. McDowell and rookie teammate John Hunter Nemechek (Joe’s son and driver of the No. 38 car) have placed their Fords in respective 22nd and 23rd positions in the current postings.

Saturday’s first half of Pocono’s Cup Series doubleheader was historic in a brighter sense for McDowell. He drove the No. 34 to an eighth-place finish, earning his career-best result at a track other than Daytona or Talladega. Consistency has been the name of the game for McDowell and the No. 34 team in 2020. Prior to the crash, the car had posted top 20 finishes in four consecutive events, as well as seven of the past nine. McDowell is currently on pace to set a career-best finish in the Cup Series standings, having previously come home 26th in 2016 and 2017 (doing so with FRM in the latter).

Though his name is etched in NASCAR infamy (a history eloquently documented by a website known as LASTCAR), McDowell has had his share of auto racing accomplishments. He took home 2004’s championship honors in the open-wheel Star Mazda Championship (now known as the Indy Pro 2000 Championship), one year after scoring Rookie of the Year honors in the ARCA series. McDowell also earned a win at the NASCAR Xfinity Series level in 2016.

Fortunately for McDowell, he has a long way to go to set the all-time record for last-placements across NASCAR’s three national series. According to LASTCAR, that dubious mark is held by former Xfinity Series champion Jeff Green, who has been relegated to 121 such finishes.

McDowell and the Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Big Machine Vodka 400 Powered by Florida Georgia Line (4 p.m. ET, NBC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Erik Jones impresses on the playoff brink

On the cusp of the NASCAR playoff picture and facing an uncertain future, Erik Jones came up big after facing disaster at Pocono.

Summer often affords the opportunity for sports fans to relax and divert their eyes away from the playoff picture and enjoy the games for what they are during the supposed “dog days”, allowing the insanity to fully reign in September.

But with NASCAR racing serving as the only sport in town, fans will take whatever sort of postseason discussion they can get.

Now is as good a time as any to talk about the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff picture. Against big odds, the series has entered the second half of its 26-race regular season and suddenly only 11 races remain until the postseason begins at Darlington Raceway. Winning more or less assures a driver’s playoff participation, while those who go without must rely on the mercy of points.

Erik Jones, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is currently the 16th and final name on the guest list as the postseason preparty rolls on. After this weekend’s historic Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, Jones is up 14 points on Austin Dillon, his closest competitor for the slot. This posting comes after Jones finished a season-best third at the Pocono 350 event on Sunday afternoon.

Jones reflected on his playoff quest during a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom.

I think we’re so much better than (16th) that it doesn’t really even play into my mind I know if we just kind of do what we need to do, things will kind of work out,” Jones said when asked if he or his No. 20 squad looks at the standings at a time like this. “It’s not really even a question in my mind at this point, making the Playoffs or not.  I feel like we’ll be strong enough here to get a win at a race here in the next month or two somewhere.  I don’t think that’s really in my mind.  We just have a good enough car, a good enough team.  We just got to clean some things up, have some things go our way.  I don’t really believe in luck that much.  You keep chugging along, things will go your way eventually.”

All things considered, it’s actually a solid position for Jones to be in. The weekend began with him on the outside looking in, a mere point behind rookie Tyler Reddick for the final spot. Those who crave playoff drama were no doubt intrigued by an incident that befell Jones, as he ironically crashed with Reddick on the 70th of 130 laps during Saturday’s Pocono Organics 325 in partnership with Rodale Institute. While Reddick was able to muster a 30th-place finish running four laps off the pace, Jones’ Toyota was damaged beyond repair, relegating him to 38th.

When Reddick endured mechanical problems at the start of the second part, a 350-mile event on Sunday, he took full advantage.

His Toyota wasn’t fast enough to run with his teammate, race-winner Denny Hamlin, but Jones kept a wave of decent momentum going with a relative bronze medal at the 2.5-mile track’s 2020 finale. It’s his second top-five finish over the last three races, having managed a fifth-place showing after being involved in the topsy-turvy ending at Talladega.

“I think we’ve been pretty fast every week,” he said. “I can’t think of a race other than Martinsville where we didn’t have good speed. It’s unfortunate we haven’t finished as good as we’ve ran at some races. I think that’s going to come around. You can’t have things go wrong every single week.”

“It was a good day today. The Craftsman Camry was pretty quick. It’s good to get a good finish. …I wish we could get some more finishes. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Jones is in his third season of Cup Series racing with Gibbs. He’s looking for a third playoff berth that would match his seasons in the No. 20…one that would certainly come in handy during contract negotiations.

The 2015 NASCAR Camping World (now Gander RT & Outdoor) Truck Series champion is slated to be a free agent at the end of the 2020 season. If Jones hits the market, he could get lost in a crowded picture that might also include former series champion Brad Keselowski, as well as fellow playoff participants Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney. After his second top-five run in the span of a calendar week, Jones expressed confidence that a new deal could be done and he would remain in the No. 20 stable.

We started talking to them about next year, what we’re going to do moving forward,” Jones reported. “I feel like right now that’s kind of the plan, is working with them. We’ll see what happens. But I feel good about it right now moving forward.”

Jones and the Cup Series stars return to action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon for the Big Machine Vodka 400 Powered by Florida Georgia Line (4 p.m. ET, NBC). He owns a runner-up finish at IMS, coming home second to Keselowski in the 2018 event.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin ties Jeff Gordon with sixth victory at Pocono Raceway

After a runner-up finish on Saturday, Denny Hamlin reversed his fortunes to win the second part of a NASCAR Cup Series weekend doubleheader.

It was auto racing deja vu all over again at Sunday’s Pocono 350. The second half of a NASCAR Cup Series weekend doubleheader, the first of its kind, featured the same top pair of finishers. Denny Hamlin, however, was glad to see the order reversed this time around.

Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team denied Kevin Harvick the opportunity of a weekend sweep, taking home the 350-mile event as dusk descended on Pocono Raceway. He would earn his series-best fourth win of 2020 and his sixth victory on the track known as “The Tricky Triangle”. Hamlin previously finished behind Harvick at a 325-mile event on Saturday afternoon at the Long Pond, Pennsylvania landmark.

Sunday’s win ties Hamlin with NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the 2.5-mile track.

Pocono played host to Hamlin’s first win during his rookie season in 2006. Hamlin’s Sunday drive was his 41st Cup Series victory, breaking a tie with Gordon’s fellow Charlotte inductee Mark Martin.

Shrewd pit strategy allowed Hamlin to earn the fateful win. Sunday’s race was paused after six laps due to inclement weather, pushing the latter portions to the twilight hours. Due to the lack of lights at Pocono, drivers were forced to race both each other and the setting sun.

Hamlin took the lead from Harvick when the latter pitted to top off on fuel on lap 105 of 140. Rather than immediately follow Harvick, Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart opted to run 15 extra laps to build a sizable advantage on the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Hamlin was able to get service and emerge ahead of Harvick when he pitted with 20 laps remaining. He ran only behind his JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. for six laps before the latter brought his own Toyota to pit road. Hamlin was thus able to coast to a victory won by over a three-second margin.

Harvick continues to lead the Cup Series points by a 52-point margin over runner-up Ryan Blaney as the circuit enters the second half of the regular season. He and Hamlin (who sits in fifth, 75 points behind) have combined to win 7 of the 15 races the 2020 season has had to offer thus far.

Another Gibbs entrant, the No. 20 Toyota of Erik Jones, finished a season-best third, while Chase Elliott and Harvick’s Stewart-Haas teammate Aric Almirola rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday for a new Independence Day weekend tradition. For the first time, Indianapolis Motor Speedway finds itself in the coveted slot to host the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line (4 p.m. ET, NBC).

Race Notes

  • Kyle Busch, winner of three prior Pocono events, saw his day end on a crash toward the end of the second, 55-lap stage after he and Blaney made contact while trying to avoid the slower of Garrett Smithley. Busch was visibly displeased in an interview with Fox Sports’ Jamie Little, declaring “I know what happened but it doesn’t make any sense to talk about it. It will just come across in a bad way.” The defending series champion, Busch sits 11th in the current standings but has yet to earn a Cup victory this season.

 

  • Two drivers who impressed with strong runs on Saturday saw their Sunday end early in separate wrecks. Michael McDowell finished dead-last in 40th and rookie Christopher Bell finished only a spot ahead of him after respective crashes on laps 16 and 40. Bell was coming off his career-best fourth-place finish and came home third after the first stage. McDowell had finished eighth on Saturday, his first top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since November 2016.

 

  • In addition to hosting the first Cup Series doubleheader (two races at the same locale on the same weekend), Pocono also hosted the first NASCAR tripleheader, in which each of the organization’s three national series raced on the same day at the same track. Brandon Jones took home his first Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win in the morning (winning a 150-mile event from Saturday) postponed due to weather) while Chase Briscoe held off Ross Chastain to win his fourth Xfinity Series races of the season.

 

  • Brad Keselowski won the second stage of the race after Kurt Busch took home the first, 30-lap segment. They respectively finished 11th and 13th.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick finally earns a win at Pocono Raceway

A bold strategy allowed Kevin Harvick to win at the Tricky Triangle on Saturday, the first half of a rare weekend doubleheader.

For Kevin Harvick, the 39th time at Pocono Raceway was the charm.

Harvick took home his third win of the NASCAR Cup Series season and his first at Long Pond, Pennsylvania landmark known as “The Tricky Triangle” in his 20th season on the circuit. His win at the Pocono Organics 325 in partnership with Rodale Institute also marks the 52nd career Cup victory of his career.

“Everybody from Stewart-Haas Racing has done a great job. We’ve had really fast cars every time we’ve come to Pocono, just hadn’t got to Victory Lane,” Harvick said in a postrace Zoom conference. “It was definitely awesome to get to Victory Lane today with our Busch Beer Ford.  Proud of all the men and women at Stewart-Haas Racing for everything they’re doing right now.”

Harvick won with a bold strategy instituted by he and crew chief Rodney Childers. The No. 4 car pitted on lap 66 of 130 but only took two tires. In the early stages of the final 53-lap stage, he and teammate Aric Almirola were running in the top two spots when each hit pit road with 37 circuits to go. Duplicating the two-tire strategy, Harvick emerged from pit road with about a 12-second advantage over his Stewart-Haas teammate that had won the second stage and led the most laps on the afternoon/early evening.

The win at Pocono was the first win for both Harvick and Childers. They previously had collaborated on four runner-up finishes at Long Pond and Childers brought over an additional such finish while working with Mark Martin in 2012. Harvick has now won at every track on the Cup Series circuit with the exceptions of Kentucky and the Charlotte road course. He’ll get the respective opportunities on July 12 and October 11.

“I want to win everywhere,” Harvick said. “As well as we’ve run here, you definitely talk about it. For us, it was kind of one of those things where you joke around about it. We’ve run plenty good enough to win races here. It’s kind of like Texas. We finally knocked down that wall and won three years in a row.  Hopefully that’s the same trend that happens here at Pocono.”

There’s hardly any time for Harvick to celebrate the victory, as the Cup Series immediately returns to action in Long Pond on Sunday for the Pocono 350 (4 p.m. ET, FS1), which will run 10 laps and 25 miles longer than its predecessor. With the top 20 of the starting lineup set up through inversion of Saturday’s results, Harvick will have to start 20th. Drivers are also mandated to use the same car than ran in the 325-mile event.

That was the reason Harvick opted not to perform a celebratory burnout after scoring his victory. Even if he wasn’t planning on saving the motor for Sunday, Harvick declared that he has no interest in celebrating until fans are back in the stands on a full-time basis and he can celebrate his triumphs in victory lane with his race team.

“‘Im not doing any more celebrations with nobody out there to celebrate with. Until the fans come back, I’m not doing a burnout, standing on the car, doing any of that stuff. It doesn’t feel right not having my team in Victory Lane,” Harvick said. “We miss the fans. I miss my team being able to be right in there with us because those are the guys and gals that are making it happen. It’s tough to give an elbow bump or wave at them.”

The pole-sitter Almirola (having won the position through a random draw) finished third behind Denny Hamlin while rookie Christopher Bell finished a career-best fourth. Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle rounded out the top five.

Race Notes

  • The 350-mile event will actually be the final of three Sunday races at Pocono. All three of NASCAR’s national series will be racing on the same day for the first time in the association’s history. The Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series race, the Pocono Organics 150 to benefit Farm Aid was originally supposed to be run on Saturday but was postponed due to inclement weather (9:30 a.m. ET, FS1). In the middle will be the Xfinity Series’ Pocono Green 225 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro & Sons (12:30 p.m. ET, FS1). The Cup Series itself saw their own Saturday event delayed by an hour due to the aforementioned rain.
  • Ryan Blaney (12th) saw his streak of consecutive top-five finishes end at four. Blaney nonetheless moved up to the runner-up spot in the current NASCAR standings, 29 points behind Harvick.
  • Michael McDowell (8th) earned his first top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona and Talladega since the November 2016 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Driver of the No. 34 Ford for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports, McDowell has finished in the top 20 in seven of the last nine races.
  • By virtue of his 20th place finish, Ryan Preece will Sunday afternoon’s pole-sitter. Preece previously earned the pole at May 20’s Darlington race via the same method. Austin Dillon finished 19th and will start alongside him in the front row.
  • Tyler Reddick and Erik Jones were each involved in a tough wreck in the front stretch that played a major role in forming the latter stages of the Cup Series playoff picture. Reddick entered holding the 16th and final postseason seed, beating Jones out by a single point. Jones’ No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was forced to the garage, relegating him to a 38th-place finish. Reddick managed to get back on the track to finish 30th. He continues to lead Jones by eight points for the final spot on the playoff grid.
  • Quin Houff also failed to finish after he was involved in a wreck on lap 16 while B.J. McLeod was ousted due to a transmission failure.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Pocono pole sitter Aric Almirola talks momentum and diversity

After a third-place finish at Talladega, Almirola credited an unlikely source for kickstarting his NASCAR journey.

Reggie White had a knack for striking fear into those who wore No. 10. After all, the numeral was well within the allotted range for NFL quarterbacks, who were victimized 198 times by the Minister of Defense.

For Aric Almirola, however, White was a source of hope.

White was one of the biggest influencers behind NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative, one that seeks to increase the minority and female influence and impact on the sport. He and another NFL legend, former head coach Joe Gibbs and current NASCAR owner Joe Gibbs, kickstarted the program in 2003 with a class that included Almirola, one of the sport’s first drivers of Cuban descent.

“I feel lucky and I feel fortunate that somebody would step up and step out like he did to start the program that he did,” Almirola said after Monday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. “Reggie, the very first time I met him, he said, ‘The reason I’m doing this is I love racecars, I love cars, I love watching racing.”

“Coming with (Gibbs) to watch a few of these NASCAR races, I fell in love. I want to start a team and give a driver, drivers, crew members an opportunity from the grassroots level to work their way into the system.”

For the time being, Almirola remains a NASCAR Cup Series staple. He has been a full-time racer on the premier since 2012 and is in the midst of his third season behind the wheel of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. He has reached the playoffs in each of his first couple of seasons and strengthened his case for a return trip with a third-place finish on Monday. Typical Talladega calamity ensued on the final lap, as Almirola completed his top-three run backward as the pack failed to beat out Ryan Blaney for the win.

Almirola currently sits 12th in the standings with a 32-point cushion the postseason’s cutoff line. He was able to build with back-to-back top-five finishes, with Talladega’s posting coming immediately after a fifth-place showing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A prime opportunity to carry on the momentum comes this weekend at Pocono Raceway. Almirola will get a doubleheader rolling on Saturday afternoon, having earned the pole for the Pocono Organics 325 in partnership with Rodale Institute (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) via random draw.

“I‘m happy to finish top five another week in a row, I felt like we were really close to winning that one,” Almirola said of the race. “(We were) so close with our Smithfield Ford Mustang. We had the strategy of kind of riding around surviving most of the race. We didn’t race very aggressively early on in the race. As the laps wound down, I got to the front, then I got shuffled. Right there on that (final) restart we found ourselves back in position. We had a really fast Ford Mustang.”

Exciting as it was, Monday’s Talladega event (whose victory Almirola missed by 0.025 seconds) was forced to take a bit of a backseat when a noose was found in the garage of Bubba Wallace, Almirola’s fellow Drive for Diversity alum and the only African-American driver on the circuit. An FBI investigation concluded after the race determined that the noose was not a hate crime (having been in the stall since last October’s Cup event) but such a sight was still troubling to drivers and observers alike.

Prior to the GEICO 500, Wallace’s fellow drivers pushed his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet to the front of the field and stood behind him during the invocation and national anthem.

As a Cuban-American driver, Almirola admitted that while the scrutiny outside of NASCAR jurisdiction has been nothing compared to what Wallace has had to go through, he sympathized and wished him well.

“I’m a Cuban American. My dad and his whole side of the family came from Cuba in 1966.  So growing up trying to race as a Cuban American, sure, I’ve had things said to me, things that were offensive, that hurt. I actually told Bubba this morning that on a very, very small scale I can relate and I can empathize. I have never had to go through what he’s had to go through in the last couple of weeks, and especially in the last 24 hours. I feel for him immensely.”

Almirola previously drove the iconic No. 43 car for six seasons. Wallace admitted that he and Almirola “didn’t click very well” during a Friday afternoon press conference, but mentioned that his regards stuck out during his process.

“Aric Almirola sent a nice text right before all of that on Monday,” Wallace noted. “He was saying how we’re not friends and we don’t act like we are, but we’re going to stand next to each other, that he’d be proud to stand next to me as a brother and a human being. I thought that was really special.”

In addition to his future prospects, which include a third consecutive playoff berth and seeking his first win since October 2018’s Talladega event, Almirola is glad to play a part in NASCAR’s changing landscape. He notes that the he’s proud to part of the changing field, which includes newcomers in the pits, in front offices, and in the stands.

“I think that the sport has worked so hard since I got my opportunity in 2004 to adapt,” Almirola noted. “I think NASCAR has forever been considered an All-American sport. All of America has changed and evolved a lot over time. I think that NASCAR has done an incredible job of being inclusive and making sure that the garage area, the spectators, the fan area, that they all resemble all of America. I have been so proud to be a part of that initiative and that drive.”

“They continue to adapt and evolve and make our sport a more inclusive sport where people can feel welcome.  If you like racecars, fast racecars, the adrenaline rush of cars going 200 miles an hour side-by-side like you saw (on Monday), you should be able to come and be a part of it whether as a competitor or spectator and participate and enjoy it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags