AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose battled not only for the race win of the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen on Sunday but also for a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. After a hard fought duel it was it was Allmendinger who captured his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at Watkins Glen International in his 213th career start.
The win is also the first for the single-car JTG/Daugherty Racing team which formed an alliance this season with Richard Childress Racing. Childress along with Roger Penske were both in victory lane to congratulate Allmendinger on the win.
"My gosh, I can't believe we won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race with this whole 47 team," Allmendinger said in victory lane after first offering condolences to the family of Kevin Ward Jr. "I just wanted it so bad for them, this team, they work so hard."
The now 32-year-old Allmendinger was in his first year with Penske's team back in 2012 when he was suspended from NASCAR for failing a drug test. He then completed the Road to Recovery program set forth by NASCAR and Penske gave him opportunities in the IndyCar Series in 2013 and also in the Nationwide Series where Allmendinger won both his races at Road America and Mid-Ohio. Those performances helped Allmendinger land the ride with JTG/Daugherty Racing this offseason.
On a restart with two laps left Ambrose and Allmendinger squared off both trying to earn the win to get their team into the Chase. Ambrose got into Allmendinger into Turn 5 and moved him wide. Allmendinger hung on the outside which allowed him to have the inside come Turn 6 where he cleared Ambrose to take the white flag in the lead. Ambrose then got in a battle with Kurt Busch which allowed Allmendinger to get away over the final lap.
Ambrose finished second, Kurt Busch third, Kyle Larson fourth, and Carl Edwards fifth.
The big news before the race was that Tony Stewart withdrew from the race following his incident Saturday night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park where his Sprint Car contacted and killed Kevin Ward Jr a 20-year-old competitor that exited his car after a crash to show his displeasure to Stewart. Regan Smith was called upon to drive Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet.
The 90-lap Cheez-It 355 at The Glen started with Jeff Gordon on the pole after setting a new track record on Saturday during qualifying. Marcos Ambrose started alongside in second. Gordon pulled in front of Ambrose off of Turn 1.
On lap 3 Kevin Harvick pitted for an odd scenario. His team left balance bags, that are used when setting the car up in the garage area to replicate the drivers weight, under his seat and they were sliding into his feet. Paul Menard soon started to experience break troubles and he took his car to the garage for repairs and lost three laps.
The first caution flew on lap 10 when Cole Whitt had a break failure getting into Turn 1. His No. 26 BK Racing Toyota went straight into the tire barrier with a heavy impact but Whitt was able to walk away without injury. He was having one of his best runs of his rookie season in 19th at the time. He finished 43rd.
Under the caution Martin Truex Jr was the first car to pit from 17th place and he restarted in 23rd on lap 15. Up front it was still Gordon leading Ambrose. On lap 16 Brad Keselowski got into the back of Matt Kenseth getting into Turn 1 and picked up front end damage. On lap 18 Kyle Larson overshot the bus stop and had to stop. That dropped him from 23rd to 38th.
AJ Allmendinger then pitted from third as his team went to a three stop strategy. Alex Bowman got wide in Turn 6 and spun on lap 22 but was able to keep going and the caution did not come out. Kyle Busch then pitted on lap 23 but his team left the gas can in the car as Busch pulled out of his pit. He had to serve a stop-and-go penalty. Joey Logano pitted on lap 25 and was the next to draw a penalty for his team leaving the pit wall too soon on his stop.
Kyle Busch's day got worse on lap 27 when he and Martin Truex Jr got into it in the bus stop and carousel corners. Truex seemed to slow after Busch got into him getting into the bus stop and then when side-by-side Truex and Busch came together in the carousel doing damage to Busch's left-front. He pitted and then went to the garage for repairs.
On lap 28 Ambrose pitted under green from second and Jeff Gordon then pitted from the lead on lap 29. Ambrose was able to make up a lot of time and got past Gordon. It was Kasey Kahne then in the lead as he had pitted on lap 11 under caution. Kahne pitted on lap 33 which gave the lead over to Ambrose and he was about four seconds ahead of Gordon.
Brad Keselowski found trouble on lap 41 when his car began to slow and drop back through the field. He was experiencing break issues.
At the halfway lap of 45 Ambrose led Gordon by three seconds. Kurt Busch was third and 10 seconds back. Allmendinger was fourth 11 seconds back and Jimmie Johnson was 12 seconds back in fifth.
Allmendinger pitted for his second stop of the race on lap 48. The race took a big turn on lap 50 when Gordon suddenly slowed between turns 5 and 6 as his car lost all power. At the time it looked like it would either be him or Ambrose in victory lane. He could not get to pit road with traffic in the way which brought out the second caution of the race on lap 51. Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer dove to pit road before the caution flew which was a great move for them. Brad Keselowski also took his car to the garage to fix his break issues.
Under the caution Ambrose pitted from the lead with a bunch of other cars. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, and AJ Allmendinger did not pit and would restart on lap 55 in the top five positions. McMurray was sixth, Bowyer seventh, and Ambrose eighth. Rounding out the top 10 were Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth who pitted with Ambrose.
The third caution flew for a spectacular crash on lap 56. The accident started off the carousel Turn 5 when Greg Biffle got wide. When he came back to the track his rear end made contact with Ryan Newman and sent Newman's No. 31 Chevrolet into the tire barrier to the right of the track. The tires shot Newman's car violently back into the track where Michael McDowell could not avoid hitting Newman's car. That impact dislodged McDowell's rear suspension and McDowell went backwards airborne into the Armco and catch fence. Both drivers were able to walk away from the scary accident. Danica Patrick picked up damage by hitting some of the big debris that was on the track and Alex Bowman picked up heavy front end damage after running into the back of Boris Said's car while trying to get slowed up off of Turn 5.
The red flag was displayed to give track crews the opportunity to fix the Armco barrier and the catch fence. After a 1 hour and 21 minute delay the yellow flag was displayed. Pit stops occurred but Carl Edwards Greg Biffle and Casey Mears stayed out and took the top three spots. AJ Allmendinger was the first car off pit road with fuel only. He was followed by Jamie McMurray in fifth, then Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, and Marcos Ambrose ninth. Jimmie Johnson was the leader but needed four tires and he restarted 17th on lap 60.
Allmendinger made the move to the lead on lap 61 past Edwards. By lap 62 Ambrose had already driven back through the traffic to third place. Ambrose then passed Kurt Busch for second in Turn 1 on lap 66 and was two seconds behind Allmendinger's lead. Both drivers were setting blistering laps and the question became whether they would be able to make the finish on fuel if the race did not see more caution laps.
On lap 73 Mears spun in the bus stop while running ninth but did not hit anything and the green stayed out. He dropped to 27th and Joey Logano also dropped from tenth to 13th because he had to go wide to avoid running into Mears' car.
The fourth caution flew on lap 78 when Josh Wise had a flat tire and stopped on the exit of the bus stop. Jamie McMurray pitted from ninth and brought most of the cars behind him as well. For the lap 82 restart with nine laps left Allmendinger led over Ambrose, Busch, Edwards, and Harvick. Austin Dillon was the first off pit road in 14th followed by Vickers, Logano, and McMurray.
The fifth caution flew right away on lap 82 when Jimmie Johnson spun in Turn 1. He was contacted by Matt Kenseth to cause the spin but Kyle Larson had gotten into Kenseth to push him into Johnson in the stack up of Turn 1. Regan Smith then hit the left-rear of Johnson's car hard after he could not avoid him because of Justin Allgaier's car already being in the hole that Smith needed.
That set up a restart on lap 86 with five laps left. Allmendinger still led over Ambrose, Busch, Edwards, and Biffle. Austin Dillon restarted 11th which was the highest of the cars that pitted the previous caution. Ambrose was able to stay next to Allmendinger out of Turn 1 and the two breathtakingly ran side-by-side up through the S's to the bus stop where Ambrose drove it in and clipped the grass but was able to get the lead.
Allmendinger then fought back and got a great run off Turn 7 and down into Turn 1 passed Ambrose with a little contact on lap 87. Right after that happened the sixth caution flew because Denny Hamlin spun off Turn 7 and contacted the sand barrels at the entrance to pit road. Alex Kennedy then also crashed after contact from Reed Sorenson put him hard into the Armco on the exit of Turn 1. That brought out the red flag for about 20 minutes so track crews could replace the sand barrels.
The race restarted on lap 89 with two laps to go and Allmendinger and Ambrose were on the front row and Edwards and Busch in the second row. Allmendinger held the lead over Ambrose through Turn 1 and through the bus stop. At Turn 5 Ambrose got into the back of Allmendinger and the two then ran side-by-side down into Turn 6 where Allmendinger cleared Ambrose. Ambrose then got loose off Turn 7 and Kurt Busch battled him into Turn 1. That allowed Allmendinger to get away and after he ran a mistake free last lap he took the checkered flag with a margin of victory of 1.160 seconds over Ambrose.
Finishing third was Kurt Busch with Kyle Larson fourth, and Carl Edwards fifth. Joey Logano finished sixth, the highest of the drivers that pitted before the restart with nine laps left. Kevin Harvick was seventh, Greg Biffle eighth, Matt Kenseth ninth, and Brian Vickers tenth. Dale Earnhardt Jr was 11th, Kasey Kahne 12th, Martin Truex Jr 13th, Jame McMurray 14th, Casey Mears 15th, Austin Dillon 16th, Justin Allgaier 17th, Aric Almirola 18th, David Ragan 19th, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr 20th. Danica Patrick was 21st, David Gilliland 22nd, Reed Sorenson 23rd, Denny Hamlin 24th, and Boris Said 25th.
Nelson Piquet Jr made his Sprint Cup Series debut for Randy Humphrey Racing and finished 26th. Clint Bowyer was 27th and Jimmie Johnson the last lead lap car in 28th. Landon Cassill was 29th, Joe Nemechek 30th, Michael Annett 31st, Paul Menard 32nd, Alex Kennedy 33rd, Jeff Gordon 34th, Brad Keselowski 35th, Alex Bowman 36th, Regan Smith 37th, Josh Wise 38th, Ryan Truex 39th, Kyle Busch 40th, Ryan Newman 41st, Michael McDowell 42nd and Cole Whitt 43rd.
After 22 of the 26 races to set the 16-driver Chase Grid there are now 12 drivers that have won a race so they have locked in. Dale Earnhardt Jr, Brad Keselowski, and Jimmie Johnson have three wins. Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, and Kevin Harvick have two wins. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, and AJ Allmendinger have one win. The final four Chase Grid spots are currently held on points. Matt Kenseth is 77 points clear with Ryan Newman up 19 points, Kyle Larson up nine points, and Clint Bowyer up eight points.
Greg Biffle is eight points behind Bowyer with Kasey Kahne 12 points back, Austin Dillon 18 back and Marcos Ambrose 50 back.
The next race on the schedule is the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, August 17th.
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