The White Zone: Thoughts on the Cup race at Loudon

by Tucker White On Mon, Jul. 23, 2018

LOUDON, N.H. - JULY 22: Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 5-hour ENERGY/Bass Pro Shops Toyota, lead the field to turn one after taking the green flag to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 22, 2018 in Loudon, New Hampshire. Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Here are some thoughts I had of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort and Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

BREAKOUT RACE FOR ARIC ALMIROLA

Prior to today, Aric Almirola never led more than 78 laps in an entire season. While he didn’t lead the race-high (that was claimed by Kurt Busch), we’ll probably look back at today as the day he went from journeyman to a driver who can compete for wins.

LOUDON, N.H. – JULY 22: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 22, 2018 in Loudon, New Hampshire. Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Almirola first took the lead after running down and overtaking teammate Kurt Busch, using lap traffic as a pick to drive by him on the inside line in Turn 1, with 89 laps to go. While teammate Kevin Harvick cycled out ahead of him for the lead during a cycle of green-flag stops with 74 to go, Almirola again used lapped cars as a pick to power by Harvick in Turn 3 and regain the lead with 69 to go.

After teammate Clint Bowyer tagged the wall in Turn 3 with 45 to go, forcing a caution, Almirola exited the pits in third. He fell to sixth on the final restart, before rallying back to a third-place finish.

“I laid back off of Harvick’s bumper a little bit, was trying to time the restart to roll up to him and Kyle,” he said. “Kyle went right at the beginning, maybe even slightly before. He went right at the beginning, if nothing else, of the restart zone. It caught me off guard. Earlier in the race they had been dragging the restart out further in the restart zone. I was kind of anticipating that. When Kyle fired, I was caught off guard. When I fired, I just spun the tires because I wasn’t prepared. That was totally my bad. Instead of giving myself a fighting chance to go up there and win, race those guys for the win, I fell back to sixth and had to battle back to third.”

SEE ALSO: Almirola disappointed with third at Loudon

His podium finish was also his ninth Top-10 of the season, the most of any season of his career. He’s also raised his performance to a point where a Top-five finish disappoints him.

“I’m disappointed. You think I’d be really excited to run top five and I’m not,” Almirola said. “We had the best car hands-down. There’s no doubt in my mind. We gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart. I spun the tires on the restart and didn’t even give myself a fighting chance, so I’m just really frustrated. Chicago, we had a car capable of winning and we didn’t execute today again with another car capable of winning, and we didn’t get our Smithfield Ford Fusion in Victory Lane. It’s just frustrating.

“They say you’ve got to lose some before you win some and I feel like we’ve lost some now and it’s time to stop it and go to Victory Lane. I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. They’re giving me incredible race cars and we showed up with cars capable of running in the top five and challenging to win races these last seven weeks. I’m really proud of everybody back at the shop. I’m really proud of Johnny Klausmeier and all the guys on this 10 team. We’re gonna get Smithfield and Ford Motor Company and Mobil 1 and everybody that helps us out to Victory Lane really soon.”

PERFORMANCE TURN-AROUND AT HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS

The lackluster performance of the Chevrolet camp this season have been well documented, and no stable exemplified the growing pains more than Hendrick Motorsports. Yesterday at Loudon, however, they exhibited signs of improved performance.

LOUDON, N.H. – JULY 22: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 22, 2018 in Loudon, New Hampshire. Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Chase Elliott led a season-high of 23 laps, won a stage and finished fifth, at a track that’s not served him well.

“I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good,” Elliott said. “Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing. I’m proud of the effort. I appreciate everybody’s effort back at Hendrick and the chassis shop and engine shop and Chevrolet and all the folks that are working hard to try to get better. We took a step in the right direction.”

Jimmie Johnson ran Top-10 for the majority of the race (average position was 9.6). He was realistic about his performance woes, as he thought Top-10 was where they need to be.

“Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to,” he said. “We scored some great points in the stages, I think (I) finished third and seventh or something like that. All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Both ran a higher average position than their season to date average.

Alex Bowman and William Byron also ran higher than their season to date average and finished higher than their season to date average finish.

Now one race is by no means an indication of season performance, but if the performance of Bowman, Byron, Elliott and Johnson improves going forward, we’ll look back at this race as the day the USS Hendrick Motorsports dislodged itself from the shoal.

CASUALLY-DRESSED BROADCAST BOOTH

While NBC’s lap-by-lap announcer Rick Allen took to pit road, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte donned T-Shirt attire to call the race from the booth.

How was it? Well as Nick Bromberg of Yahoo Sports put it on Twitter…

As someone who regularly watches episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I thought it was an interesting change of pace to see three personalities commentate on the race in a more casual fashion. While Allen did well on pit road, the booth was rough at times with the lack of lap-by-lap direction. But overall, it was serviceable.

While I think Allen is best suited for the booth, I’m fine with Earnhardt going T-Shirt casual the rest of the season. And I’m not the only one.

THE RACE

Early in the race, I tweeted this…

LOUDON, N.H. – JULY 22: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Beer Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 22, 2018 in Loudon, New Hampshire. Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

While New Hampshire isn’t high on my list of favorite tracks, and I even tweeted that we should only race once a year at Loudon, the PJ1/VHT/TrackBite/Sticky Stuff and its diminishing returns as the race ran on made for an intriguing race. Yeah, it dragged a few times, but passing wasn’t a Herculean task and the leader never pulled too far away from the second-place car that clean air was the be all end all.

Loudon has been described as “Martinsville on steroids.” Well, that was the case yesterday, as lap traffic negated the clean air advantage. It allowed Harvick to reel in Kyle Busch and bump him out of the groove with four laps to go and steal the victory.

SEE ALSO: Harvick Scores Sixth Win of 2018 at Loudon

“…your goal is to not wreck him (Busch). Your goal is to move him out of the groove, get away from him far enough because you know they’re going to be mad. Today that was the situation. I knew his car was going to get wide. He was going to be tough to pass. Kyle Busch is one of the toughest to pass when he has control of the race. For me, that was the moment that I needed to make it happen, drive away, he finished second, right?”

The Foxwoods Resort and Casino 301 was the cap to a fantastic weekend of racing: From Chase Briscoe edging out Grant Enfinger to win the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora, to Christopher Bell out-racing Brad Keselowski in the run to the finish of the XFINITY Grand National Series race at Loudon, all three races delivered.

SEE ALSO: Chase Briscoe Fends off Teammate Grant Enfinger in Last Lap Thriller at Eldora

SEE ALSO: Bell Holds Off Keselowski for Xfinity Win At Loudon

As someone who falls on the cynical pessimist end of the spectrum, I had nothing about which to complain.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

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