First time winner: AJ Allmendinger gets career win
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -
Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen was scheduled to be a 90-lap race.
Instead it turned into a series of shootouts after an accident delayed Sunday's race for 1:21.42 and then another red flag with three laps left caused a race between Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger to the finish.
In the end Allmendinger came away with his first career victory in 213 Sprint Cup Series races.
"It is just a memorable day to go out there and remember everything that's just happened," Allmendinger said. "I hope I win a lot more, but if I don't but to be able to remember it like this it's pretty awesome."
Both drivers knew a win would get them into the Chase and Ambrose, whose two Sprint Cup wins both came at Watkins Glen, and he also has four Nationwide wins at the track, did everything he could to get the victory.
The two battled side-by-side for nearly the entire last three laps, including a dangerous side-by-side battle through the Esses.
"I know there was a lot of dual banging going on," Ambrose said. "I got my tires really hot doing that I slid into turn 11 after I got the lead and he was able to get back in front.
"I was just pleased we got through the Esses side by side without wrecking the whole field."
Allmendinger joked that he wished the race had been easy, but he enjoyed the battle with Ambrose.
"I was hoping to make it boring honestly. I wanted to lead all 90 laps," he said. "That's what makes racing fun. Marcos I don't believe he's one of the best road racers in NASCAR, I believe he's one of the best road racers in the world.
"He moved me out of the way and he leaned on me and I leaned on him back. To have that where you know where that limit is and we take it to the limit. I knew I was going to have to pull every trick out of the bag I could. He's so good. He's so good at maneuvering a race car."
Kurt Busch, who finished third, believes that the final laps are what racing is all about.
"It's what we come to the track for to put on a good show," he said. "It's what gets the juices flowing, it's what needs to get documented about today."
Allmendinger's co-owner, and former NBA all-star, Brad Daugherty knows how special the day was.
"We aren't the biggest, and the baddest, but we are the winners today," he sad. "To have this opportunity this is a pinnacle moment for our race team. We are little bitty guys and we got the big guys today."
Daugherty knows that things are different in racing then when he played basketball.
"The thing that's different is there is so much involved in the sport to have a perfect day like we did today. Playing pro basketball if we were playing a team I had a lot of control if I was having a great day.
You knew the cautions were coming and that's totally out of your control. When you have a moment you can seize like those final moments you have to seize that moment and that's what AJ did. That's what a great professional athlete."
And Daugherty was happy to see the win come as his driver won it not on strategy, but with racing on the track.
"He got up on the wheel and beat I guy I think is possibly the best road racer on the planet," he said.
Co-race owner Jodi Geschickter was thrilled with the victory.
"This win has been a long time coming we have been in the sport for 20 years. I can't be any happier to win here at Watkins Glen," she said. "It's a wonderful place to be it's a great blessing."
For Ambrose a win would have gotten him into the Chase, but he wasn't going to think about that after the race.
"I just finished the closest race of my life so I haven't thought about points," he said.
Now Allmendinger is in the Chase and it's something that hasn't sunk in with crew chief Brian Burns yet.
"I don't think so, I am pretty sure by the time I wake up tomorrow it's going to hit me. I feel like it's like watching a movie right now and it's the good part," he said.
Allmendinger is excited to be able to make the Chase.
"It's huge to be in the Chase," he said. "I feel like our sponsors see the right direction. To be able to get them, our race team and say we are a Chase team."
Kyle Larson finished fourth and the rookie knows that victories by drivers like Allmendinger will just make it even more difficult for everyone trying to make the Chase.
"It's crazy to think with a 16-car chase it would be harder to make it than it previously was but I'm in 12th place right now and I'm sweating it," he said. "I think NASCAR did a good job with the change and made everyone step up even more."
Carl Edwards finished fifth.
"I am glad Jimmy Fennig put us in a position to be up there for the win," Edwards said. "I am sure like everyone up there that you want the last few laps to do over again. It was a blast and a lot of fun. Thanks to Cheez-It and thanks to all the fans for coming out and making this a record crowd. Congrats to AJ, that is awesome for him. Marcos did a great job too. Both those guys are amazing to watch. I had the best seat in the house to watch that and if we couldn't win, at least I had a great seat for the show."
Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell's cars were wrecked in the crash between Turns 5 and 6 with Newman's car coming to rest in the center of the track and McDowell's going airborne and crashing into, and destroying the fencing which caused the first long delay.
"I am very agitated," Newman said. "The race track and the safety at the track are not up to standards."
McDowell was just happy to walk away uninjured.
"I am good," he said. "I thank the good Lord above. That was a bad wreck. It seems when I do it they are usually fairly big. I am not sure what happened. I saw the 16 (Greg Biffle) get wide and the 39 (Ryan Newman) come back across the track. I didn't have time to adjust or move. I tried not to hit Ryan in the door there. That was pretty much it. I was just along for the ride. We had a good K-Love car today but we were off on strategy. It was going to work out. It was going to cycle out. I am glad to walk away from it. I am very thankful. I feel blessed."
The accident also caused damaged to Danica Patrick, Alex Bowman and Biffle.
NASCAR VP of Competition Robin Pemberton said after any accident like this there will be reviews on how to improve things.
"Well, they all get reviewed, but it's a constant improvement process," he said. "And as you know, may of the places we go to, the facilities, are multipurpose and we are only here one weekend a year and it's busy through the rest of the year. And were' not the only series that races here. So you know, this place has made, Watkins Glen has made great advancements, you remember Turn One and Two and all that, moved grandstands and fencing and SAFER barriers, and that's worked quite well for us. But not all places are places for SAFER barrier. There are different types of systems to help slow the cars down. As you can see, the incident with Cole Whitt earlier in the race down in Turn One, it was lucky - it was good that the tire barrier was there."
Whitt went straight through the first turn and into the tires on lap 11 and walked away unhurt from the accident. Both Newman and McDowell were both evaluated and released from the medical center after the crash.
David Gililand said that the speed on the road course makes problems something that can't always be avoided.
"I have had problems here," he said. "You are going so darn fast here. It's a great race track and it's a lot of fun, but you are going so fast."
The second red flag came when Denny Hamlin went into the barrier on the final turn.
The accident changed things in the race as the drivers had to get out of their cars and sit for over an hour and then prepare for a short shootout to the finish.
"It's definitely different," Gililand said. "Road courses are all about rhythm and this shakes that up a bit. But, safety is the most important thing right now."
"It basically becomes a 34-lap race and that's a little different."
For everything that happened Sunday the ending was as sweet as can be for Allmendinger.
"Honestly this is the greatest feeling," he said. "Because, I went through hell in this series. I don't have to hear anymore AJ may be the next first time winner because I'm tired of it. I dreamed about this moment and I'm not going to forget it."