AJ Allmendinger earned sweet redemption Sunday with a popular and emotional victory in the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, where he scored his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory and the first for his single-car JTG Daugherty Racing team.
And with the victory, Allmendinger all but locked himself into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as he bested Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson and Carl Edwards during a wild and crash-marred afternoon around the fabled Watkins Glen road course.
In 212 prior starts, Allmendinger’s best finish was a second at Martinsville Speedway in April 2012, but he never put a foot wrong on this day, waging a sensational fight with Ambrose over the final 10 laps, including a two-lap, green-flag shootout at the end.
And afterward, Allmendinger, one of the most expressive drivers in the sport, was alternately screaming and nearly speechless.
"My gosh, I can’t believe we won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race!" Allmendinger gushed, as his crew gave him a Gatorade bath in Victory Lane. "I just wanted it for them –this team — they deserve it, they’ve worked so hard."
Of the final two-lap battle with Ambrose for the victory, Allmendinger added, "I wasn’t going to let Marcos take that from me. I hoped the fans loved that race here and at home, because it was fun in the race car."
Allmendinger was greeted in Victory Lane by former boss Roger Penske, Richard Childress, who has a technology-sharing agreement with JTG, third-place finisher Busch and other owners and drivers who were happy to see the well-regarded driver finally seal the deal.
"I don’t even know what to say to that," said Allmendinger. "That just means more than anything to me."
VIDEO: Jeff Gordon’s car loses power after dominating early portion of the race
As for runner-up Ambrose, a road-racing star in his native Australia where he is a two-time V8 Supercar Series champion, all he could do was hold his thumb and forefinger barely apart as he said, "This close."
It was a tough loss, especially with a Chase slot at stake. "We put a lot of effort into this race," Ambrose said. "We knew it was a great chance for us to make the Chase. I’m pretty disappointed, because it’s so much to win, so much effort. But congratulations to AJ."
Five-time Watkins Glen winner Tony Stewart missed the race after being involved in a crash Saturday night at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park that killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. Regan Smith subbed for Stewart and finished 37th.
Jeff Gordon started from the pole in his familiar No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, flanked by Marcos Ambrose in the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. The duo was fast early, Gordon leading and opening up a margin of nearly 7 seconds on third-place Jimmie Johnson by Lap 10.
Gordon led the first 29 laps before pitting for fuel and surrendering the lead briefly to teammate Kasey Kahne.
After the green-flag stops cycled through, it was Ambrose out front, with Gordon second, some 4.3 seconds behind.
At the halfway point, Ambrose led Gordon by 2.855 seconds, with Kurt Busch third.
But on Lap 51, the engine in Gordon’s car died and he coasted to a halt just past the start-finish line.
VIDEO: Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, others involved in massive wreck
On Lap 56, between Turns 5 and 6, there was a huge crash involving Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell, among others. The impact on the cars of Newman and McDowell was savage, but both drivers walked away.
"Wrong place, wrong time," said Newman, who was not happy afterward. " … It’s a very antiquated race track and it’s not at all up to NASCAR’s safety standards."
The ensuing red flag — actually two of them — lasted about 90 minutes.
Once the yellow finally came out, most of the leaders pitted, Ambrose taking only fuel, but Carl Edwards stayed on track and was out front when the track went green on Lap 60.
One lap later, Allmendinger outbraked Edwards into Turn 1, to put his Chevrolet on point. Ambrose, meanwhile, restarted ninth, but was up to fourth by Lap 62.
Ambrose took second from Busch on Lap 66, moving to 2.088 seconds behind leader Allmendinger.
But on Lap 78, Josh Wise brought out a caution when he went off track, which wiped out Allmendinger’s lead.
When the race restarted, Allmendinger got a great restart, but behind him the field wadded up, with contact between Regan Smith and Jimmie Johnson. That brought the yellow back out.
On the restart with five laps to go, Ambrose somehow muscled his way into the lead, but Allmendinger took it back the following lap, only to see Denny Hamlin crash into the barrels at the entrance to pit road and Alex Kennedy wreck, too. That led to another red flag.
The track went green with 2 laps to go, Allmendinger leading initially and holding on to win.
"I just knew if he could get to me, he’d move me out of the way, like I’d do to him," Allmendinger said of Ambrose. "It wasn’t rough, he didn’t try to wreck he. He just moved me. So I just leaned on him in the next corner. I knew if I could get a gap, with them racing behind me, it was game over."
VIDEO: Marcos Ambrose talks about narrowly missing out on a Chase-clinching opportunity