TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Aric Almirola snapped a 149-race winless streak Sunday and earned a berth into the third round of the NASCAR playoffs, but he could be pardoned if he is already thinking about winning the Daytona 500.
That's how well Stewart-Haas Racing performed at Talladega Superspeedway, and everyone knows that the rules package for the Daytona and Talladega tracks will change after the 2019 Daytona 500.
With all four SHR cars strong and working together Sunday, they were in another league, at one point with a full one-second lead on the entire field. The only thing that could stop them in the 1000Bulbs.com 500 were their fuel tanks, and that spoiled the day for Kurt Busch (108 laps led out of 193) and Kevin Harvick (46 laps led) as their cars sputtered from low fuel in the final laps.
Almirola led just one lap, the final lap, to win as he crossed the line ahead of teammate Clint Bowyer.
"It was us against the field," Almirola said after his win. "When we started to drive off from the field in that first stage, I knew we had something special.
"I knew one of our four cars was going to win."
Some in the garage thought the higher temperatures Sunday might hurt the SHR brigade, which had qualified 1-2-3-4. But that was wishful thinking as they controlled the opening two stages.
"We have a group of guys and this is all they do, is work on [Daytona/Talladega] cars all year long," Almirola said. "We've been chasing Penske for years. They've been the dominant team. We've tried a lot of different things and we have not been able to hit on how to beat them.
"This weekend we finally came up with a package."
Thanks to several drivers pitting near the end of the second stage, the SHR cars were mixed in the pack for about 25 laps before taking control again.
"It would have been a total crime if one of them didn't win as strong as they were and as many laps as they led," said Team Penske driver Joey Logano after this fifth-place finish.
"They led the whole race. ... Superspeedway racing has been scienced out. I don't know what they're doing."
The SHR cars looked different all day, not just because they ran up front. They obviously ran with a body offset on the chassis that gave them the look of "crabbing" on the straightaways.
"We've been working on little details," SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said. "Honestly, there's not a lot. Two of the cars that were here raced in Talladega in the spring race.
"We just fluffed on them."
Most of the competition heaped praise on SHR, which won for the first time at Talladega.
"I don't know what they've figured out, but they had a lot of something that nobody else has any idea about because it wasn't even a race," Martin Truex Jr. said. "They qualified top-four and outhandled everybody.
"That was pretty impressive. ... That's just crazy to see. Hat's off to them."
The car body offset wasn't the only difference.
"Absolutely, you're going to work on it," Truex crew chief Cole Pearn said. "We need a lot to get there. It's got to be something big. ... We could put all that skew in our car if we wanted and we wouldn't go that fast.
"We could do that. It's not rocket science. It doesn't seem to help our cars as much as it helps theirs."
Now comes the question: Will teams work to match the SHR cars or work on the package for Talladega next spring, when NASCAR only uses the 1-inch-thick spacer with tapered holes in it to restrict horsepower rather than a combination of the spacer as well as a one-eighth inch plate with holes in it. The horsepower starting at Talladega next year will be closer to 550hp rather than the 450-475hp they currently run at Daytona and Talladega.
"We'll keep working on it, but obviously the urgency for that is down because there is just one more race with this package," Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said.
Despite the advantage of the SHR cars, that should take nothing away from the Almirola victory. He was leading the Daytona 500 when a block of Austin Dillon ended with Almirola in the fence and Dillon with the trophy. Almirola also had opportunities in recent races at New Hampshire and Dover to win, but the way cautions fell, he ended up not sealing the deal.
He made the most of his opportunity Sunday.
"Coming so close so many times this year, it's made me think long and hard about myself. Am I good enough? Why do I keep losing when I've been in position and had opportunities to win?" Almirola said. "I've been hard on myself.
"So to win, that was the most gratifying part. The playoffs, transferring to the Round of 8, that's secondary. Just going to victory lane, getting that gratification, giving what I feel like my team deserves. ... All of my teammates have won except me. Today was our day."