AJ Allmendinger celebrates in victory lane after winning the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on Sunday. (Reuters)
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — A.J. Allmendinger held off Marcos Ambrose on three late-race restarts to win the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday at Watkins Glen International.
“That was just a fun race,” Allmendinger said. “Everybody at home, if you didn’t love that, you are not a fan of racing.”
It was Allmendinger’s first career win and made him eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Ambrose finished second.
“Honestly, the Chase doesn’t mean anything to me,” Allmendinger said. “It’s just cool once we sit down and think about it, but just to everything I’ve gone through, all I’ve wanted to do for the last how many years is win a Sprint Cup race. It’s so hard. Jimmie (Johnson) makes it look to easy, he wins so many.”
After several laps of trying to catch Allmendinger, a caution on lap 77 put the two drivers side by side on the front row for the restart. Allmendinger was able to get out in front of Ambrose on the restart, only for Jimmie Johnson to spin to immediately bring out another caution.
“I left nothing on the table,” Ambrose said. “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 of 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.”
After another restart with Allmendinger and Ambrose on the front row with five laps remaining, Ambrose battled Allmendinger side by side before taking the lead. Ambrose’s lead lasted less than a lap, though, as Allmendinger retook the lead just before another late-race caution for Denny Hamlin and a red flag for repairs to the pit wall.
After the final restart, Allmendinger was able to remain ahead of Ambrose for the win.
“Yeah, I mean I knew our car was slick on restarts on the tires, and I knew Marcos was going to try to move me out of the way if he had the opportunity,” Allmendinger said. “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.”
Kurt Busch got by Carl Edwards on the final restart to finish third. Kyle Larson also slipped by Edwards for fourth, relegating Edwards to fifth.
Ambrose and Jeff Gordon dominated the early laps of the race, with Gordon starting on the pole and leading 29 laps by the time he encountered a battery issue on lap 50. Most of the other laps, to that point, were led by Ambrose.
Ambrose took his first lead of the race after a cycle of green-flag pit stops completed on lap 33. At that point, he had a 3.6-second lead over Gordon.
Ambrose then gave up the lead to pit during the caution that came out for Gordon’s stalled car on lap 50. Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Hamlin stayed out during the caution for track position, planning to only make one additional stop during the remainder of the race.
Those who pitted under the caution were expected to need one additional stop, like drivers who stayed out. But a yellow flag that led to a lengthy red flag waved on lap 56 after a multi-car wreck involving Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman, Alex Bowman, Danica Patrick and David Ragan came within the window of going the rest of the way after stopping during the yellow flag.
The race was red-flagged for nearly an hour-and-a-half for repair to a guard rail around the track.
“That was a bad wreck,” McDowell said. “It seems when I do it (wreck), they are usually fairly big. I’m not sure what happened.”
Several drivers who pitted under the previous caution took fuel only, getting off pit road ahead of drivers like Earnhardt, Johnson, Kahne and Hamlin, who had to also take on tires after staying out during the previous caution.
Ambrose was ninth on the restart and Edwards restarted in the lead. As Ambrose worked his way back up toward the front, Allmendinger quickly took the lead from Edwards. After a handful of laps, Ambrose was in second with his sights on Allmendinger and the race lead.
“I am glad (crew chief) 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.”