It took nearly the entire afternoon thanks to three red flags, but AJ Allmendinger won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International Sunday afternoon. Allmendinger fought door to door with Marcos Ambrose on a final restart with two laps to go, powering by the Australian road course ace on the final lap for the win.
A day that started with a great deal of sadness after Tony Stewart was involved in a sprint car crash that led to a fatality Saturday night forcing him to sit out Sunday’s race, ended with an emotional celebration for AJ Allmendinger who was suspended by NASCAR in 2012 after failing a drug test. He completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program later that year, and was reinstated.
Allmendinger was released by Penske Racing after the suspension, he was signed by JTG-Daugherty Racing in 2013. Sunday’s win was the first Sprint Cup win for Allmendinger and the team.
“My gosh, I can’t believe we won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race,” Allmendinger said in victory lane. “With this whole No. 47 team. Tad Geschickter and Brad Daugherty and all the great sponsors we have; our first Cup victory together, my first Cup victory, I love these guys. I just wanted it so bad for them and this team. They deserve it. They work so hard.”
Jeff Gordon led to the green from pole and after a side by side battle into turn 1 was able to make it past second place started Ambrose as the field sorted out behind.
Kevin Harvick was forced to pit on lap 3 after crewmembers left bean bags, used to simulate a driver’s weight during set-up, in the car. They slid out from under the seat and got in Harvick’s way.
Gordon began pulling away with Ambrose not far behind. Third place Jimmie Johnson was just over five seconds behind first place.
The first caution came out on lap 10 when Cole Whitt had a hard crash entering turn 1. Whitt was able to climb from the car. The restart came on lap 4 and Gordon was again able to leap to the lead ahead of Ambrose; Allmendinger, who had started sixth, slid into third, Kurt Busch into fourth, Johnson fell into fifth. Allmendinger made his green flag stop on lap 21 from third.
Kyle Busch pitted on lap 23, but left his pit box with his fuel can still attached. He was penalized with a stop and go penalty. Green flag stops began for the leaders on lap 25. Joey Logano pitted however, NASCAR said his crew went over the wall too soon and he was also penalized with a stop and go. His teammate Brad Keselowski came in from fifth on lap 27. On lap 27 Kyle Busch was forced back in with heavy damage. Replays showed he and driver Martin Truex Jr. coming together exiting the bus stop.
Ambrose pitted on lap 29 from second; Johnson and Kurt Busch followed. Kyle Busch headed to the garage as Gordon came in for his first stop on lap 30.
Kasey Kahne took the lead having been one of the few who pitted under the first caution. He pitted on lap 33 handing the lead to Ambrose. Gordon soon moved his way into second with a three-second gap. Kurt Busch was in third, Allmendinger fourth, Johnson fifth.
Allmendinger came in for another stop on lap 49 from fourth.
After leading the opening 29 laps and while running second, Gordon’s day took a big hit when his Chevy suddenly lost power on lap 50 as he exited the last corner. He slowed and brought out the race’s second caution.
“I was having so much fun out there leading and battling with Marcos (Ambrose), who I have so much respect for on these tracks,” Gordon said. But I don’t know. We got a little bit behind on the lap. Marcos came in the lap before us and between that, and I got held up a little bit on that lap. We got behind, so we were charging back getting to him. And then I came off the Carousel and just all the power went out and I flipped batteries and did everything that we do in that situation and just never had any power. So, I’m not sure what caused that.”
After the pace car caught up the field, those in the lead group with the exception of Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., pitted. Ambrose led off pit road followed by Kurt Busch. Keselowski was forced to go to the garage with no brakes.
The restart came on lap 54 with Johnson in the lead, Earnhardt Jr. second, Kahne third followed by Denny Hamlin, Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray and Ambrose.
The third caution came out for a huge crash involving several cars in between the carousal and turn 6 on lap 57. Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell got together and both cars exploded after Newman got hit by Greg Biffle; Newman got into McDowell sending the McDowell machine airborne.
“I’m okay,” Newman said. “It’s just the wrong place at the wrong time. From my standpoint, (Greg) Biffle jumped the curb and hit the splitter or something up on the curb and got out and got across the grass. And I probably could have given him a little bit more, but I tried to time it so I could shoot past but he slowed down when he got back on the race track. It’s really disappointing.”
Several others were damaged and the track was blocked forcing NASCAR to throw a red flag. McDowell spent several moments sitting on the ground before standing up, Newman was able to climb from his mangled machine and walked away. In all five cars were involved including Danica Patrick; Newman and McDowell were the only cars that could not continue. The red flag was lifted briefly as the field was brought to pit road.
The red flag was then displayed again and lasted for nearly 1:25 minutes as track crews repaired the ARMCO barrier that had been damaged. When the caution finally did wave, the top 10 came in. There were a variety of strategies as some took only fuel while others took tires and fuel. Carl Edwards was the first of those who stayed out and he took the lead. Ambrose stalled his car leaving pit road and lost several spots. The restart came on lap 60. Edwards led followed by Allmendinger and Kurt Busch. Allmendinger blew past Edwards entering turn 1 on the following lap to take the lead. After restarting seventh, Ambrose was up to fourth the next lap, then to third. Soon Ambrose was on the rear bumper of Busch as Allmendinger began to stretch out his lead.
Ambrose was able to dive by Busch entering turn 1 and take over second on lap 65. He slowly began to chip away at the 2-second lead of Allmendinger. With 21 laps to go, the lead stabilized at around 2 seconds. Busch remained third, Edwards held on in fourth. Ambrose began catching up again just as the caution came out with 13 laps to go. That fifth caution came out when Josh Wise lost a tire and stopped at the exit of turn 5. Both Ambrose and Allmendinger began shutting off their cars to save fuel.
The caution gave those among the lead group who felt they were short on fuel hope for enough to have enough to finish. Those from ninth back pitted. The green came out with nine laps to go. On the restart Allmendinger began to pull away but as the field entered turn 1, Johnson was tapped by Matt Kenseth and spun. He collected several other cars including Regan Smith who was driving in relief of Tony Stewart. The sixth caution of the day waved.
The restart came with five laps to go, led by Allmendinger with Ambrose second. Ambrose and Allmendinger were side by side until turn 5 when Ambrose was able to power past for the lead. Behind them, Busch and Edwards battled for third and fourth. With four laps to go the top two were again side by side across the line, but behind them Denny Hamlin spun exiting turn 7. He spun into the barrels at the pit road entrance. Meanwhile in turn 1 Alex Kennedy got together with Reed Sorenson entering the turn sending Kennedy nose first into the wall. NASCAR threw the seventh caution followed quickly by the day’s third red flag to replace the barrels at the end of pit road. The third red flag was lifted after nearly 20 minutes.
The restart came with two laps to go with Allmendinger in the lead and Ambrose just outside. Busch and Edwards lined up just behind. Allmendinger was able to scoot ahead of Ambrose on the restart, while Busch got by Edwards for third. Allmendinger held station until turn 5 when Ambrose got by. On the next turn Allmendinger shoved Ambrose and jumped ahead. Ambrose began to fight Busch for second and was able to get away, but Allmendinger’s lead was too much and Allmendinger went onto score his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win.
“I knew our car was slick on restarts on the tires,” Allmendinger said. “And I knew Marcos was going to try to move me out of the way if he had the opportunity. To his credit he didn’t wreck me. He just moved me like he should have. I went down into the next corner and leaned on him a little bit to see if I could get a gap and get them racing behind me. I knew if I could just get a three or four car length gap they weren’t going to get back to me. That was just a fun race.”
Ambrose held on for second, Kurt Busch was third, rookie Kyle Larson was able to get by Edwards to secure fourth while Edwards held on to round out the top five.
“First of all, congratulations to AJ and the 47 team,” Ambrose said. “They deserved that win. I left nothing on the table. I tried to rattle his cage and couldn’t shake him. We raced fair and square to the end there. It was a tough couple laps but it was fair. We were both giving it to each other pretty hard. No harm, no foul. We just came up a little short.”
Logano was sixth, Kevin Harvick seventh, Greg Biffle eighth, with Kenseth and Brian Vickers completing the top ten.
Gordon finished 34th four laps down and fell out of the championship points lead; Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th and takes over the top spot. Kenseth is third, Keselowski fourth, and Logano fifth. Edwards, Johnson, Harvick, Newman and Larson fill out the top 10.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to Michigan International Speedway for next Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.