Aric Almirola wasn’t the only driver who won big at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as far as the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are concerned.
Entering Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola knew that he was effectively in a must-win situation to get into the playoffs, given the fact that he sat all the way down in 27th place in the point standings.
In the 22th of 26 races on the regular season schedule, he was able to get the job done, securing his third career victory and his first since winning at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2018.
In doing so, the driver of the #10 Ford became the 13th different driver to win a race this season. With four races remaining in the regular season, there is still a chance that there will be more than 16 race winners before the playoffs, which would result in at least one winner missing the playoffs.
But this is the only scenario under which Almirola could still miss the four-round, 10-race postseason. The 16 playoff spots go to the regular season champion, plus the 15 drivers who rank highest in wins. So Denny Hamlin, the current points leader, would be in the playoffs even without winning if he maintains his lead.
The tiebreaker among drivers with the same number of wins is points. So in addition to Almirola, another driver was a “big winner” at the four-turn, 1.058-mile (1.703-kilometer) oval in Loudon, New Hampshire on Sunday, and that was the 25th place finisher: Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell.
McDowell won the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, but for most of the season since then, he has been the lowest winner in the point standings — and the only one not competing for one of the sport’s top teams.
For that reason, if there was one winner at risk of potentially missing the playoffs should more than 16 different winners emerge, it was the Daytona 500 champion.
Prior to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway last Sunday, there hadn’t been a new winner since Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott became the 11th winner in 14 races at Circuit of the Americas back in May. This run of repeat winners played to McDowell’s benefit.
Busch becoming the 12th different winner wasn’t ideal for McDowell.
However, believe it or not, Almirola becoming the 13th different winner is practically just as good as a repeat winner.
Why? Because McDowell is no longer the lowest in the point standings among the winners, and that should remain the case, as he is well ahead of Almirola. The difference is currently 71 points, a gap that probably isn’t going to be made up in the final four races of the regular season.
So the only way he can fall out of the playoff picture is if there are four more new winners other than Hamlin over the course of these for races AND Hamlin wins the regular season championship.
For all intents and purposes, McDowell is into the playoffs for the first time in his journeyman Cup Series career.
There are no NASCAR Cup Series races scheduled over the next two weekends as a result of the 2020 Summer Olympics. The series is scheduled to resume on Sunday, August 8 at Watkins Glen International with the Go Bowling at The Glen. NBC Sports Network is set to broadcast this race live beginning at 3:00 p.m.