WATKINS GLEN – A.J. Allmendinger has won some big races in a variety of different disciplines, but nothing tops Sunday's win at Watkins Glen International.
The would-be racing superstar out dueled Marcos Ambrose over three restarts in the final 10 laps to win the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, Allmendinger's first-career victory in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, which also gave him an automatic berth in the Chase for the Championship.
"Nothing compares to today because I have went through hell in this series, absolute hell," said Allmendinger, whose introduction to NASCAR was with a sputtering Red Bull Racing program that failed to qualify for 19 races in 2007, nearly losing a ride with Richard Petty Motorsports and a 2012 season with Roger Penske's team that was cut short due to a positive drug test for Adderall.
"... just to go through hell and back and to know this was my dream that I've worked so hard for over the last eight years was to win a race (in the Sprint Cup Series). I mean, you can ask any of my family, (team owners Tad and Jodi Geschickter), my parents, my girlfriend, it's all I talk about."
The win wasn't only popular with the fans, who flocked to The Glen in huge numbers again this year, but in the auto racing community.
Allmendinger was feted on Twitter by former teammates and bosses like Paul Tracy and Michael Shank, while being greeted in victory lane by Roger Penske and Richard Childress.
"It helped having Roger Penske and the Penske Racing guys and Richard Childress show up and congratulate me, too," a beaming Allmendinger said. "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."
Allmendinger's team adopted an off-sequence pit strategy early in the 90-lap race, which finally put the No. 47 Scott Products Chevrolet near the front on lap 61 following a violent wreck (see http://www.the-leader.com/article/20140810/SPORTS/140819975/1020/SPORTS for the full story). After a 90-minute red flag period, Allmendinger started behind two cars on older tires and quickly dispatched them to take the lead.
Meanwhile, Ambrose - the six-time Glen winner and heavy favorite to win here - was trying to clear the same pack. Once free of the slower cars, Ambrose was unable to make up time on Allmendinger until the eventual winner was told to save fuel. As the run went on, everyone was expecting a caution flag - typical late in recent races at The Glen.
With 11 laps left, Allmendinger and Ambrose got the yellow flag, and then some.
The first attempt at a restart was wiped out by a crash involving Jimmie Johnson and Regan Smith. The second restart saw the two road racing aces execute a driving clinic - staying side-by-side from Turn 1, through the esses (where door-to-door racing is verboten) and into the chicane where Ambrose got the lead, only to relinquish it the next trip down into Turn 1. That great action was halted by another crash, this one requiring the second red flag of the day.
Denny Hamlin got knocked into off Turn 11 and hit the sand barrels that protect the end of pit wall.
The restart with three laps remaining setup the winning moves - and it took several.
Again with a great jump off the line, Allmendinger was able to stay out front until leaving the door open exiting the chicane, and Ambrose took the opportunity. Somehow, Allmendinger stayed glued to Ambrose's Richard Petty-owned Ford on the outside of the carousel and set himself up for a big pass in Turn 10.
Allmendinger out-braked the fastest man in NASCAR history at The Glen and kept the gap over the final lap as Ambrose was forced to defend second place from an attack by Kurt Busch.
"And Marcos, I don't believe he's one of the best road racers in NASCAR, I don't believe he's one of the best in the U.S., I believe he's one of the best in the world," Allmendinger said. "To be able to have a go with him basically one-on-one there, I've always respected him, but I respect him so much more now because he could have easily wrecked me, and honestly probably, moved me out of the way and wrecked me and drove to the win and made the Chase and everything is great, but he didn't."
The Australian, who has two wins and five podium finishes in six Sprint Cup starts at The Glen took his runner-up finish in stride.
"We threw everything we could at it," Ambrose said after the race. "We knew what was at stake and we had a great race car, led a lot of laps, just came up a little short."
Busch finished third, followed by Rookie of the Year - and potential Chase - contender Kyle Larson. Carl Edwards soldiered to a fifth-place finish, leading the Roush Fenway Racing group, and Joey Logano was sixth. After leading the first 29 laps, Jeff Gordon settled for 34th (see http://www.the-leader.com/article/20140810/SPORTS/140819974/2000/NEWS).
With his eighth-place finish, Greg Biffle moved closer to making the Chase, now ranking 12th in the standings, while Ambrose is in the last qualifying position for the Chase.
The focus of Sunday's race was on the JTG Daugherty Racing team, an independent squad with a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. Around the sport for nearly two decades in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series, the owners were finally able to celebrate a win at NASCAR's highest level.
"It's a big day for the little guys, because like I said, 'We got a chance to kick the big guys in the knees today and boy, we kicked them square in the chin,'" co-owner Brad Daugherty, the former NBA All-Star and current ESPN analyst.