While Kevin Harvick celebrated another momentous victory of this season in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 6 and punched his ticket to the second round of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, teammates Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer battled back from early struggles to their respective cars and persevered through a long night of racing to record top-10 results, thus opening the Playoffs on a decent note.
For Almirola, who started in 10th place, he started the race on a strong note as he kept his No. 10 Go Bowling Ford Mustang within the top 10, running as high as seventh place. Throughout the run, however, Almirola began battling loose-handling conditions as he lost track position and he was also involved in an incident past the Lap 80 mark involving Playoff contender Brad Keselowski, who cut a tire and drew out a caution due to debris. At the end of the first stage, he was scored in 18th place.
Restarting inside the top 20 at the start of the second stage, Almirola was able to work his way back into the top 15 and following adjustments to his car, he nearly cracked the top 10 before he settled in 11th place following the second stage. For the remainder of the run in the final stage, Almirola was able to work his way back into the top 10 on the track following a stellar pit stop from his crew and gaining track position. He was scored in seventh place prior to a late restart before he settled in ninth place when he crossed the finish line.
The top-10 result was Almirola’s 15th of the season and despite scoring no stage points throughout the race, he holds sole possession of the 12th and final transfer spot above the top-12 cutline in a tie-breaker over teammate Clint Bowyer, who finished right behind him.
“I think the downforce package has been a little bit different, for sure,” Almirola said in a post-race conference call. “I enjoy slipping and sliding around. Tires still seemed like they mattered, for sure. I think tires were a second-and-a-half to two seconds faster, so I’m excited about Richmond — going back to a short track package with low downforce and that’s been a good place for us, so I’m looking forward to there and Bristol and we’ll go from there…As far as Darlington compared to Las Vegas, I felt like I ran about the same as I would have at Las Vegas. I’ve been about a sixth to tenth place car at both places and that’s about what we ran tonight. We got in a little bit of a hole early in the race with some left-rear quarter panel damage that we had to fix on pit road and really put us in a spot to where we couldn’t capitalize on stage points, so that hurt us a little bit just not scoring any stage points, but we were able to battle back from that and get back to the top 10, which is where we felt like we were capable of running. I felt like we were a seventh to tenth place car and we finished ninth.”
For Bowyer, who started ninth, he was scored back in 10th place on the track when the competition caution flew on Lap 25. Though he had a car capable of running inside the top 10 and was able to work his way up to eighth place, he dropped back to 12th place, where he finished following the first stage. During the early run, he also had an on-track altercation with Kyle Busch, where both competitors made contact with one another for two consecutive laps and ended with Bowyer getting bumped by Kyle before he was passed for position in the top 10. Restarting inside the top 15 for the second stage, Bowyer received adjustments to his car throughout the run to improve the handling, which he was able to carve his way back into the top 10 and finish ninth when the second stage ended. As a result, he collected a couple of stage points.
Restarting in 11th place to start the final stage, Bowyer continued to methodically work his way towards the front as he worked his way up as high as sixth place on the track with his pit crew delivering strong service to his No. 14 PEAK Ford Mustang. With 66 laps remaining, however, he pitted to have a flat right-rear tire addressed. Though he returned to the track on fresh tires and was poised to gain more track position, a caution with less than 50 laps remaining due to debris evaporated Bowyer’s progress and chances of making a late rally for the win. Instead, he restarted inside the top 15 with approximately 40 laps remaining and made his way up to 10th place when the checkered flag flew and he crossed the finish line.
The top-10 result was Bowyer’s eighth of the season as he is ranked in 13th place in the Playoff standings and is tied with teammate Aric Almirola for the 12th and final transfer spot while being below the top-12 cutline.
“I certainly was hoping for more,” Bowyer said in a post-race conference call. “Frustrated to be honest with you. I have to go back and look at the race to see what happened with the debris. By the time that they picked it up I’d say it was way off the race track, so that kind of set us up to not have a not very good day. That put us in a hole. We were gonna be in the single digits for sure there, looking pretty good, but just had a lot of trouble. Right-rear — threw the rubber off the right-rear and had to pit there. It could have been catastrophic. At the end the left-rear was about to fall off of it, so we’ve got to clean some things up. I told you going into this we’ve got to put 10 races together. We’ve got to put whole races together. We can’t make these mistakes. If we can clean those up, we’re going to some good tracks for us — for us all, Aric, Kevin and all of us, we enjoy these short tracks. We’ve got a good short track program, so looking forward to what’s to come.”
Following the race, however, disaster struck for Bowyer, when NASCAR discovered that his No. 14 Ford had two lug nuts not safely secured on his race car during post-race inspection. A similar discovery was made to Kyle Busch’s No. 18 M&M’s/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. As a result, both competitors will compete next weekend’s Playoff race at Richmond without their respective crew chiefs. Bowyer will have veteran Greg Zipadelli, Stewart-Haas Racing’s competition director, as an interim crew chief on a one-race basis next weekend.
Teammates Almirola and Bowyer, along with their fellow Cup contenders, will return for the next NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Richmond Raceway on Saturday, September 12, at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.