WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — In a battle between two drivers with everything on the line, AJ Allmendinger held off Marcos Ambrose in breathtaking fashion to win Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen and claim an almost certain spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
In the closing laps, Allmendinger and Ambrose bumped each other, leaned on each other, raced each other side-by-side through the esses without wrecking —astoundingly — and swapped the lead before Allmendinger secured his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory with a pass in Turn 6 with just over one lap left.
The 2.45-mile road course at Watkins Glen International gave both drivers their best chance to qualify for the Chase, and it was Allmendinger who prevailed in a two-lap battle that that was a long-time coming, thanks to three red-flag periods needed to repair safety barriers at the track.
Kurt Busch ran third, hoping during the final two laps that Ambrose and Allmendinger would take their aggression over the line and give him a chance to win. Rookie Kyle Larson kept his Chase hopes alive with a fourth-place run, and Carl Edwards came home fifth.
Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers completed the top 10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th and took the series lead from pole winner Jeff Gordon, who ran 34th after losing four laps while his team diagnosed and repaired an electrical-system failure.
On the next-to-last lap, Allmendinger controlled the restart and held the lead through Turn 1, but Ambrose applied pressure up through the esses, gained ground when Allmendinger ran wide in the bus stop chicane and got past the No. 47 JTG/Daugherty Chevrolet after setting up a pass with a tap at the exit from the bus stop.
But Allmendinger stayed to Ambrose’s outside through Turn 5 and leaned on the No. 9 Ford through Turn 6, gapping Ambrose down the front straight and pulling away 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. That was just a fun race. Thanks to the fans for enduring the red flags, the track workers for putting the track back together a couple of times. Everybody at home, if you didn’t love that you are not a fan of racing.”
Despite the exchange of the lead on the 89th of 90 laps, Ambrose felt the race may have been decided on the previous restart on Lap 86, when Ambrose took the lead after a side-by-side race through the esses only to lose it when Allmendinger out braked him into Turn 1 before two separate incidents involving Denny Hamlin and Alex Kennedy caused the sixth caution of the afternoon.
“If I could have held the lead when the caution came out, I would have probably had the advantage on the restart and been able to fend him off,” Ambrose said. “But that’s just racing. It’s what it is, what it’s all about. You try to land him on a restart, take a couple of chances. I’m pleased we got through the S’s side by side without wrecking the whole field, because it could have easily happened out there.”
The final few laps were worth the wait, but the wait was longer than anyone might have anticipated.
A violent crash on Lap 56 near the exit from the Carousel (Turn 5) halted the action for an extended period, as track workers made repairs to severely damaged Armco barriers between Turns 5 and 6.
Destroyed in the wreck were the No. 31 Chevrolet of Ryan Newman, which turned sideways and smashed into the guard rail to the right of the racing surface, and the No. 95 Ford of Michael McDowell, which plowed into Newman’s car as it rebounded from the barrier and backed hard into the guard rail on the left side of the course.
Newman was running behind Biffle right before the crash.
Newman shot across the track into the barrier as he was trying to avoid Biffle. McDowell, on the other hand, hand no chance to avoid Newman’s Chevy.
The stoppage lasted more than 81 minutes, and after pit stops under caution when the race resumed, Allmendinger passed Edwards for the top spot on Lap 61. He stayed out front, maintaining a lead of more than 1.5 seconds over Ambrose, who moved into second place on Lap 66.