AJ Allemendinger breaks through at Watkins Glen

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — AJ Allmendinger’s journey is almost complete.

AJ Allmendinger takes the checkered flag to earn his first career Sprint Cup Series victory Sunday at Watkins Glen.  DERIK HAMILTON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
DERIK HAMILTON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
AJ Allmendinger takes the checkered flag to earn his first career Sprint Cup Series victory Sunday at Watkins Glen.

With a new contract, sponsor extensions and a solid one-car team at JTG Daugherty Racing, Allmendinger became a winner in Sprint Cup for the first time Sunday, outdueling Marcos Ambrose in the final two laps at Watkins Glen International.

“I dreamed about this moment and I’m not going to forget it,” said Allmendinger, making his 213th Cup start. “It’s just a dream come true.”

Allmendinger’s life changed two years ago in the hours before the July race at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR officials had just kicked him out of the track, suspending Allmendinger indefinitely for failing a random drug test.

The failed drug test sidelined him for more than three months and cost him his job with Penske Racing. It also spurred much soul searching, and after a handful of one-off Cup rides he eventually landed a full-time Cup ride last August with JTG Daugherty Racing.

To break through the way Allmendinger did only added to the lore of this race, which has been decided four consecutive times by fender-banging dashes to the checkered flag. Ambrose won two of those and Kyle Busch the other.

An expert road racer from his days in open-wheel, Allmendinger beat the best in Ambrose, who has been dominant in NASCAR’s top two series at The Glen, also winning four consecutive Nationwide events.

“I’m thrilled for AJ,” said Ambrose.

The victory made JTG Daugherty Racing eligible for the Chase.

“It’s huge to be in the Chase,” he said. “I didn’t want to just say, ‘Just be there.’ We want to make some noise.”

Allmendinger held off Ambrose through the first two turns on the final restart and opened a lead after both cars bumped and won going away.

“I try to get better every day. I’m still not where I want to be,” Allmendinger said. “I wouldn’t want to go back and change the process. I wouldn’t change a thing about this.”

There were three restarts in the decisive closing laps.

Allmendinger got the jump on Ambrose in the first one with nine laps to go, but Jimmie Johnson was bumped in the first turn and his No. 48 spun around, collecting two other cars and precipitating a caution.

The race restarted again with five laps left and both Ambrose and Allmendinger were side-by-side through the esses, banging against each other before Ambrose took the lead in the chicane as he’s done so many times in the past, dirt flying as both cars hit the grass.

Allmendinger wasn’t done, regaining the lead on the next lap as he out-braked the Australian into Turn 1 before a crash involving Denny Hamlin caused another red flag with four laps left.

The 90-lap race on the 2.45-mile layout was red-flagged for 1 hour, 21 minutes just past the midpoint after a violent crash involving Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell that involved three other cars.

Newman’s Chevrolet spun hard into the Armco barrier lining the track, ripping a big hole in the barrier’s metal. The car then spun around twice and went back across the racing surface, collecting McDowell in his No. 95, which incurred heavy damage in the rear. Newman, McDowell and Alex Bowman were treated in the infield care center and released.

Allmendinger gained the lead on Lap 64 after pit stops, with Kurt Busch and Ambrose close behind.

Ambrose outbraked Busch into Turn 1 for second two laps later and set his sights on Allmendinger, who had a 2-second lead that was wiped out by the late stoppages.

Jeff Gordon started from the pole and led the first 29 laps, holding Ambrose at bay. But Gordon’s engine died on lap 50 as he lost all power and couldn’t get it refired, spoiling a promising day.

STANDINGS

1. D. Earnhardt Jr. 773

2. Jeff Gordon 768

3. Matt Kenseth 703

4. B. Keselowski 696

5. Joey Logano 671

6. Carl Edwards 658

7. J. Johnson 650

T8. Kevin Harvick 645

T8. Ryan Newman 645

10. Kyle Larson 635

11. Clint Bowyer 634

12. Greg Biffle 626

NEXT RACE

WHAT: Pure Michigan 400

WHERE: Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich.

WHEN: 1:16 p.m. Sunday

2013 WINNER: Joey Logano

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