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It's been a long way back for AJ Allmendinger after his fall from grace and loss of his prime Penske race seat in 2012, but on Sunday afternoon all such dark times were firmly behind the 32-year-old Californian as he make it to victory road for the first time in 213 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series appearances after clinching the chequered flag in an eventful Cheez-It 355 road course race at Watkins Glen International.
"All I've wanted to do for the last how many years is win a Sprint Cup race," said an ecstatic Allmendinger. "It's so hard. Jimmie makes it look too easy, he wins so many! For this race team - [owners] Tad and Jodi Geschickter, everybody at this #47 team, Brad Daugherty - to win our first Cup race together that means the world to me."
As well as being his maiden win in Cup competition, victory at the Glen on Sunday afternoon also lands Allmendinger and his team JTG Daugherty Racing a potentially even more valuable prize - a place in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, assuming he finishes in the top 30 in the points and continues to make qualifying attempts in the four races remaining before the Chase cut-off. The success comes just one year after Kurt Busch helped Furniture Row Racing become the only other single-car team in series history ever to make the play-offs.
"Honestly the Chase doesn't mean anything to me [right now]," Allmendinger admitted. "It's cool once we sit down and think about it."
Pole winner Jeff Gordon had led the field to the green flag ahead of Saturday's Nationwide Series race winner and pre-race favourite Marcos Ambrose, and the pair maintained their respective positions through the first corner and settled in for the first of 90 laps of racing ahead of Jimmie Johnson.
There were some early hiccups for a few drivers requiring early visits to pit road - Paul Menard for brake issues, Kevin Harvick for a number of bean bags (used for weight compensation during technical inspection) being left loose in the cockpit - but the first caution didn't materialise until lap 10 when Cole Whitt went into the tyre wall at turn 1. The leaders stayed off pit road under the caution and Gordon was again in charge of the run to the green flag on lap 15.
Johnson dropped back at the restart and was replaced in the top three by a flying AJ Allmendinger who was already having a great run at this early stage from sixth place on the grid. Less happy with things was last year's race winner Kyle Busch, who was forced to come in for an earlier-than-expected pit stop on lap 24 with handling issues, and then compounded the setback by pulling away from his pit stall with the fuel can still attached which resulted in a mandatory drive-thru penalty. Soon after he rejoined the race, smoke from under the #18 signalled a broken frame as a result of an earlier contact with Martin Truex Jr., and it was clear that Busch's day was effectively over as he was directed back to the garage area.
By this point a cycle of green flag pit stops was underway, Ambrose in on lap 29 while Gordon and Matt Kenseth stayed out a lap longer. The cycle benefited Ambrose the most who emerged with the race lead on lap 33 after Kasey Kahne headed in for his own pit stop, with Jeff Gordon three seconds adrift in second position ahead of a scrap for third place between Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger with Johnson holding on to fifth place.
By lap 50 Gordon was beginning to make inroads on Ambrose's lead when the battery power in the #24 abruptly cut off, leaving Gordon trying - and failing - to roll his way back to pit road. "The car just lost power," explained Rick Hendrick, Gordon's team owner. "Everything is dead. We put the batteries in it, but it's lost power. It's some connection somewhere; we just don't know where it is."
Gordon's failure to make it back to pit road meant a full course caution, and most of the field took the opportunity to come on to pit road despite it being too early for their fuel strategies. Brad Keselowski's visit to pit lane was another matter altogether as he headed to the garage area to have an issue with his rear brakes addressed.
"We had something in the brakes that broke," he sighed. "At Watkins Glen you can't run without brakes. We nursed it around as best we could and had the yellow flag period to work on it and we came in to start working on it but it took longer than we had hoped."
Johnson stayed out to lead at the restart along with similar non-stoppers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin, while Ambrose took the flag in seventh and was quickly passed by a flying Kurt Busch. However the racing didn't last long before Greg Biffle drifted wide through the turn 5 right hander and clipped Ryan Newman, sending the #31 into the tyre barrier before rebounding across the track. The wreck left Michael McDowell with no where to go and he ended up being sent spinning through the air into the Armco barrier on the other side of the track in one of the hardest and scariest hits seen at the Glen; Danica Patrick also sustained some front left damage in the fall-out.
"Biffle jumped the curb and hit the splitter or something up on the curb and got out and got across the grass," said Newman. "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 was violent. My hit into the wall wasn't that bad, it was the shot that I got from McDowell. Thankfully all of us are safe, but not at all where I wanted to be at the end of the day," he said. "Just really sad to see the antiquated walls around this race track and a lack of safety. They have no problems spending 400 million dollars in Daytona, but they could spend a few million dollars here on safety and make a lot of drivers happy."
"That was a bad wreck," admitted McDowell. "It seems when I do it they are usually fairly big. I am not sure what happened. I saw the #16 get wide and the #31 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."
Given the concern over the state of the drivers - both of whom were able to walk away from the wreck unhurt - together with the amount of debris from the two destroyed cars to clean up and the need to rebuild the badly damaged safety barrier, the race was immediately red flagged with the resulting stoppage lasting for nearly an hour and a half in total. Once the red flag was withdrawn virtually everyone made a visit to pit road, Roush Fenway Racing team mates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle being the exception to the rule. Behind them was a major reshuffle as a result of so many cars caught on different strategies by the long stoppage, Allmendinger winning the race off pit road ahead of Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers and Austin Dillon.
Allmendinger quickly shot past the Roush pair to claim the lead, and Kurt Busch and Marcos Ambrose made similarly short work of following him to the front, but with 30 laps remaining at the green flag everyone - even those who has just pitted - were having to keep a wary eye on fuel consumption if they were to make it to the finish, especially in the event of a green-white-chequered extension; Allmendinger in particular looked at risk, having possibly slightly short-filled in order to get all-important track position at the restart. That news encouraged Ambrose no end, as he moved past Busch for second on lap 66 and then set about trying to hack into the two second lead Allmendinger had pulled out in the meantime.
Ambrose's task of cutting the deficit was made easier by a caution on lap 78 for a spin by Josh Wise, which also helped Allmendinger's fuel conservation. The top 12 eschewed any further pit stops and stayed out for the restart on lap 82 in which a concertina effect into turn 1 saw Jimmie Johnson tapped into a spin and out of seventh place all the way back to 27th. In the process Johnson collected Regan Smith, who was deputising for Tony Stewart in the #14 car at short notice following the tragic events elsewhere the night before.
The next restart attempt on lap 86 lasted little longer: this time, Alex Kennedy was spun into the turn 1 barrier following contact with Reed Sorensen, but the more significant incident was Denny Hamlin crashing into the sand barrels protecting the edge of the pit wall. Since these needed replacing, the red flags were once again shown to the field with just three laps remaining in order to allow the track workers to effect the necessary repairs.
This time the hiatus was just 20 minutes long, and finally it was time for the two-lap shoot-out to decide which of Allmendinger and Ambrose would get the win - and a valuable berth in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The money had to be on the veteran road racer, and sure enough Ambrose threw everything he could at Allmendinger to get around the #47 in the short time remaining; but Allmendinger was free of fuel concerns after so many cautions and he held firm, giving as good as he got, and it meant that Ambrose could find no way past. As the chequered flag came out and the pair crossed the finish line, Allmendinger had it by just over a second.
"I knew Marcos was going to try to move me out of the way if he had the opportunity," said Allmendinger afterwards. "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."
Ambrose was gracious in defeat: "First of all, congratulations to AJ and the #47 team, they deserved that win," he said. "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.
"I am just really proud of my Stanley team," he added. "We put a lot of effort into this race and really tried to win it. We won yesterday and came up one short today."
Behind the lead pair, Kurt Busch held on to third place ahead of Kyle Larson who was the highest-placed rookie ahead of Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle. Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers rounded out the top ten with Hendrick Motorsports pair Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne just missing out.
Nelson Piquet Jr. finished in 26th place on his Sprint Cup début putting him two spots ahead of six-time champion Jimmie Johnson who was unable to do anything about recovering from his late-race spin. Of the other big names beset by in-race incidents, Jeff Gordon finished four laps off the lead in 34th just ahead of Brad Keselowski. Regan Smith was unable to rejoin after his accident on lap 82 and finished in 37th, while Kyle Busch was 21 laps down in 40th and Ryan Newman one place back in 41st.
The victory puts Allmendinger into the Chase along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt and Kyle Busch. That leaves four spots remaining with four races to go at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond before the cut-off on September 5.
In the points standings, Jeff Gordon's power issues means he cedes the lead to his Hendrick team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. who now had a five point edge at the top. Matt Kenseth moves up to third ahead of Brad Keselowski after the latter's brake problems, while Joey Logano and Carl Edwards both move up two spots to fifth and sixth respectively ahead of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings