WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — This was truly a race into the Chase.
A.J. Allmendinger went door-to-door and fender-to-fender over the final two laps with Marcos Ambrose to muscle out a win in Sunday's 355 at the Glen at Watkins Glen International. The win was Allmendinger's first in Sprint Cup and all but clinches a Chase for the Championship spot.
The win also completes an arduous journey for Allmendinger.
With a new contract, sponsor extensions and a solid one-car team at JTG Daugherty Racing, Allmendinger has come a long way from his darkest days.
"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."
The day began on a solemn note when three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart pulled out of the race 12 hours after he struck and killed 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. in a race. Ward had climbed from his car on a small dirt track in nearby Canandaigua.
Allmendinger offered his condolences to the Ward family after he won, saying, "We're a community here, we're thinking about you."
In a statement released during the race by a spokesman, Stewart said: "There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It's a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I've decided not to participate in today's race at Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy."
Regan Smith drove Stewart's car and finished 37th after getting caught in a late accident.
Allmendinger's life changed two years ago in the hours before the July race at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR officials kicked Allmendinger out of the track after suspending him indefinitely for failing a random drug test.
That cost him more than three months of his career, and him his job with Penske Racing. It also spurred much soul searching, and after a handful of one-off Cup rides and a part-time deal — back with Penske again — in IndyCar, Allmendinger eventually landed a full-time Cup ride last August with JTG Daugherty.
An expert road racer from his open-wheel days, Allmendinger beat the best in Ambrose, who has been dominant in NASCAR's top two series at The Glen with six wins, two in Sprint Cup.
"I'm thrilled for AJ," said Ambrose, who drove for the small, one-car JTG Daugherty before Allmendinger.
Allmendinger led the final 30 laps, held off Ambrose through the first two turns on the final restart and opened a lead after both cars bumped and won going away.
There were three restarts in the decisive closing laps, the last one after a crash involving Denny Hamlin brought out a red flag, the second of the day, 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, Michael McDowell and 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 back across the racing surface, collecting McDowell in his No. 95, which incurred heavy damage in the rear and also precipitated a repair to that barrier.
Winner's average speed: 90.123 mph
Time of race: 2 hours, 26 minutes, 48 seconds
Margin of victory: 1.160 seconds
Caution flags: Six for 17 laps
Lead changes: Five among six drivers
Lap leaders: Gordon 1-29; Kahne 30-32; Ambrose 33-51; Johnson 52-57; Edwards 58-60; Allmendinger 61-90