AJ Allmendinger held off Marcos Ambrose to take a hugely popular win at Watkins Glen for minnow team JTG Daugherty Racing and book his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Allmendinger and Ambrose battled hard in the closing stages, bumping and banging off the final two restarts, particularly on the final green-white-chequered restart, which saw Allmendinger get a jump on the Australian, only for Ambrose to move up to the lead at Turn 5. The two remained close, and by the next corner Allmendinger had ensured he was on the inside and regained his top spot, a position he would hold for the final lap and a half to take his first Sprint Cup victory in 213 starts.
It was clear how much the victory meant to the 32-year-old as he screamed with joy and punched the air across the line to huge cheers from the stands. “I can’t believe we won a Sprint Cup race!” he exclaimed in Victory Lane.
“It goes without saying how big and how important it is to this race team,” he later added. “I’ve said it a million times, and I truly believe it, that they [team owners Tad & Jodi Geschickter and ESPN analyst & former NBA star Brad Daugherty] make this team feel like such a family, and like we’re their own. To be able to share that together, that was what to me rolling into victory lane meant, that I was pulling into victory lane with my family because they were there. My parents are here, my girlfriend Tara.She’s been such a great direction in my life. To be able to share that as a family, you know, my bus driver Skippy, he’s had to endure me breaking cabinets and punching refrigerators in my bus and having to repair stuff, so to be able to share that together, that to me is what it’s all about. That’s a part of family, and that’s the coolest thing that I’ll take from it.”
The victory also attracted praise from two of NASCAR’s biggest names, with Roger Penske, who Allmendinger won two Nationwide races for in 2013, and Richard Childress, who’s team provide support to JTG Daugherty Racing, walking down to Victory Lane to congratulate the victor.
“It helped having Roger Penske and the Penske Racing guys and Richard Childress show up and congratulate me, too,” continued Allmendinger. “That meant the world to me because it means that to me, at least, that I’m still a part of their family, too, and they care about me. What Richard Childress has done for us between the alliance and ECR motors and what Chevy has done to help us get to this point, we couldn’t do it without him. Everything that just happened in victory lane was something that I’ll never forget.”
Meanwhile Ambrose held on to finish second, despite having to hold off a fast charging Kurt Busch, with rookie Kyle Larson and Carl Edwards rounding out the top five.
“Congratulations To AJ. He really deserved that win, because I was giving it everything I had to rattle his cage,” said Ambrose, who is always one to watch on a road course. “He withstood the pressure so congratulations to him. I’m disappointed for me, though, I’ve got to tell you. We threw everything we could at it. We knew what was at stake, and we had a great race car, led a lot of laps, just came up a little bit short.”
Early in the race it looked like Jeff Gordon could turn his pole position in to a race victory, dominating the first 29 laps before green flag pit stops. However, on lap 50, while running second to Ambrose the #24 suddenly lost all power, bringing out the caution and forcing Gordon to head to the garage with a battery issue.
The race was split by two lengthy red flag periods, most notably the hour and twenty minute stoppage for a huge accident involving Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell, resulting in heavy damage to the guardrail and fence. Both drivers escaped unharmed, although Newman was unhappy with the circuit’s safety features.
“It’s a very antiquated racetrack and it isn’t up to NASCAR standards at all,” he said. “It’s a shame that we have to have an accident like that to prove it. Hopefully something will change the next time we come back.”
The second red flag came at the end of the race following an incident involving Denny Hamlin, setting up the thrilling green-white-chequered finale between Ambrose and Allmendinger.
It was a race to forget for previous strong runners at Watkins Glen Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. Busch suffered from handling issues in the early stages before leaving his pit stall with a gas can still attached resulting in a stop-go penalty. A collision with Martin Truex, Jr. then caused significant damage to Busch’s car, losing last year’s winner 20 laps in the garage. Meanwhile, Keselowski, who had finished second in the previous three Watkins Glen races, who’s afternoon was ruined by brake issues.
Tony Stewart did not take part in the race following his involvement in a tragic accident at a sprint car race less than 24 hours prior to the green flag that took the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward, Jr. The Ontario County sheriff has said that initial findings of its investigation in to the incident do not show criminal intent.
Regan Smith sat in for Stewart in the #14 car, and many drivers and officials paid tribute to Ward at Watkins Glen.
“First of all, all of our condolences to the Ward family,” said Allmendinger the moment he stepped out of his car in Victory Lane. “We are racing with heavy hearts today. I can’t imagine what they are going through. We are a community here and we are all thinking about you.”