In a battle of perhaps the two best road racers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose went toe-to-toe for the win today at Watkins Glen International after a restart with two laps to go.
In the end, the clash of the titans went to Allmendinger, who held off a major challenge from Ambrose on the penultimate lap and pulled away to win the Cheez-It 355.
With his inaugural Sprint Cup victory, Allmendinger has also effectively earned himself a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup as the 12th different driver to win this season.
In the process, he may have denied Ambrose his best opportunity to also make the post-season with four regular season races to go.
“I love you guys! Thank you!,” Allmendinger hollered as he celebrated by doing burnouts in his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet.
When he arrived in Victory Lane, Allmendinger made sure to acknowledge the family of Kevin Ward Jr., the 20-year old racer that was killed Saturday night in New York State when three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart’s car struck him under caution in an sprint car event.
“I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” Allmendinger said of the Wards. “We’re a community here, and we’re all thinking about you.”
Stewart did not compete in today’s race, and his No. 14 car was instead driven by Nationwide Series racer Regan Smith.
The day started somber with news of the Stewart/Ward incident, whose investigation remains ongoing at this time.
But for Allmendinger, the day ended happily as he celebrated the culmination of a two-year saga that began with him losing his full-time Sprint Cup ride with Team Penske in 2012 after he failed a drug test.
After getting reinstated by NASCAR for completing its Road to Recovery program, Allmendinger bounced around in 2013 between part-time gigs in Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series, and the Verizon IndyCar Series – racing in the latter two leagues for his old Cup boss, Roger Penske.
He made the most of his second chance by earning two Nationwide road course wins for Penske at Road America and Mid-Ohio. And last August, he announced his full-time return to Cup with JTG Daugherty starting this season.
Now, he’s put the small, single-car outfit into the hunt for stock car racing’s ultimate prize.
“My gosh, I can’t believe we’ve won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race,” Allmendinger beamed. “With this whole 47 team – [team owners] Tad Geschickter, Jody Geschickter, Brad Daugherty, all the great sponsors we have – our first Cup victory together, my first victory…I love these guys.
“I just wanted it so bad for them and this team. They work so hard. I wasn’t gonna let Marcos take that from me.”
A rash of late cautions set the stage for the final duel between Allmendinger and Ambrose. With 13 laps to go, Josh Wise came to a stop off of the bus stop chicane to bring out the yellow.
The top eight drivers – with Allmendinger and Ambrose at the front of the field – stayed out during the caution. But the restart with nine laps to go was short-lived when in Turn 1, Kyle Larson appeared to tap Matt Kenseth, who then went up into Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson spun around on the track and with nowhere to go, Smith was collected.
After that was cleaned up, another restart took place with five to go and had Ambrose go to the inside of Allmendinger as they entered the esses. The two remained side by side until they got to the inner loop, when Ambrose finally cleared him to take the point.
But Allmendinger responded by getting a run off the final Turn 7 corner and went inside on Ambrose down the front stretch.
Allmendinger was in the middle of completing the pass before the caution came out again for two separate incidents involving Denny Hamlin and Alex Kennedy.
Hamlin spun out of Turn 7 and slid into the water/sand barrels that cover the start of the concrete pit road barrier. Meanwhile, Kennedy made contact with Reed Sorenson in Turn 1 and slammed into the ARMCO barrier.
The twin incidents brought out the third red flag of the afternoon, with the first two reds stemming from a violent, multi-car crash on Lap 56 that primarily involved Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, and Michael McDowell.
Allmendinger and Ambrose quickly went to the front after the race resumed under green at Lap 60, and stayed there as all of the late yellows set up their wild battle to the end.
Following the restart with two laps left, Allmendinger held back Ambrose until Turn 5, when Ambrose got into the back of Allmendinger, pushing him up the track.
But Allmendinger hung tough on the inside going down the short stretch into the left-hand Turn 6. Going into the corner, Ambrose had to give up space for Allmendinger, who took the point and left Ambrose to fight off Kurt Busch for runner-up honors.
Busch wound up third, while Larson finished fourth and Carl Edwards rounded out the Top 5.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES – Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International
1. 47-AJ Allmendinger, led 30 laps
2. 9-Marcos Ambrose, led 19 laps
3. 41-Kurt Busch
4. 42-Kyle Larson
5. 99-Carl Edwards, led 3 laps
6. 22-Joey Logano
7. 4-Kevin Harvick
8. 16-Greg Biffle
9. 20-Matt Kenseth
10. 55-Brian Vickers
11. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12. 5-Kasey Kahne, led 3 laps
13. 78-Martin Truex Jr.
14. 1-Jamie McMurray
15. 13-Casey Mears
16. 3-Austin Dillon
17. 51-Justin Allgaier
18. 43-Aric Almirola
19. 34-David Ragan
20. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
21. 10-Danica Patrick
22. 38-David Gilliland
23. 36-Reed Sorenson
24. 11-Denny Hamlin
25. 32-Boris Said
26. 77-Nelson Piquet Jr.
27. 15-Clint Boywer
28. 48-Jimmie Johnson, led 6 laps
29. 40-Landon Cassill, Running, Lap 89
30. 66-Joe Nemechek, Running, Lap 89
31. 7-Michael Annett, Running, Lap 88
32. 27-Paul Menard, Running, Lap 87
33. 33-Alex Kennedy, Accident, Lap 86
34. 24-Jeff Gordon, led 29 laps, Running, Lap 86
35. 2-Brad Keselowski, Running, Lap 85
36. 23-Alex Bowman, Running, Lap 85
37. 14-Regan Smith, Accident, Lap 81
38. 98-Josh Wise, Running, Lap 78
39. 83-Ryan Truex, Suspension, Lap 69
40. 18-Kyle Busch, Running, Lap 69
41. 31-Ryan Newman, Lap 55, Accident
42. 95-Michael McDowell, Lap 55, Accident
43. 26-Cole Whitt, Lap 9, Accident