WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — AJ Allmendinger won his first career Sprint Cup Series race, at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, a day in which the focus revolved around a driver who wasn't in the field.
Tony Stewart withdrew from the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen just hours before the green flag, citing a desire not to compete the day after the sprint car he was driving ran over and killed 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was on foot.
Regan Smith replaced Stewart, a five-time Glen winner, and finished 37th, nine laps down, after colliding with a spinning Jimmie Johnson.
"First off, all of our condolences here at NASCAR, this whole family to the Ward family," Allmendinger said. "Racing with heavy hearts today. I can't imagine what they're going through. We're a community here. We're all thinking about you."
The win was huge for Allmendinger, who got himself into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Cup by winning at the 2.45-mile road course. Allmendinger is the lone driver for JTG Daugherty Racing.
"My gosh, I can't believe we won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race," he said. "This whole 47 team, Tad G, Jody G., Brad Daughterty, all the sponsors, my first Cup victory. I love these guys. I just wanted it so bad for them. For this team. They worked so hard.
"I wasn't going to let Marcos (Ambrose) take that from me. I hope the fans loved that race and at home. Because it was fun in the race car."
The race came down to a restart with two laps to go. Allmendinger had the lead and had to hold off a hard-charging Ambrose, who briefly took the lead until Allmendinger took it back just moments later and held off the road course ace, who won the Nationwide Series race here Saturday.
"I knew if he could get to me, he'd move me out of the way, just like I'd do to him," Allmendinger said. "It wasn't rough. He didn't try to wreck me. He just moved me. I just leaned him on the next corner. I knew if I could get a gap and get them racing behind me, it was game over. That's what I did."
Kurt Busch finished third, followed by rookie Kyle Larson and Carl Edwards, who won the season's other road course race at Sonoma in June. Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers rounded out the top 10.
Allmendinger and Ambrose started alongside one another on the front row on a restart with eight laps to go.
"First of all congratulations to AJ because he really deserved that win," Ambrose said. "I was giving it everything I had to rattle his cage. He withstood the pressure. ... Really proud of this team. We put a lot of effort into this race. We knew it was a great shot for us to make the Chase. This close (holds up thumb and forefinger). So much effort."
Meanwhile, Johnson spun and was hit by Smith to set up another restart on lap 86, where after hard side-by-side racing, Ambrose was able to grab the advantage. Allmendinger pulled up alongside Ambrose again moments later and was able to overtake him before Denny Hamlin crashed into the safety barrels, bringing out the eighth caution of the day, matching the track's record.
The crash, which also involved Alex Kennedy and Reed Sorenson, brought out the third red flag of the day — lasting more than 20 minutes — to clean up the course.
A much more serious crash occurred on lap 56. Ryan Newman hit the Armco barrier — a guard-rail instead of a concrete wall and SAFER barrier — and bounced off it back into traffic. He was pummeled by Michael McDowell, whose car went airborne and flew backward into a barrier on the outside of the racing surface, destroying it and sending debris flying.
That caused two lengthy delays — totaling one hour and 21 minutes — to fix the fence.
It also raised questions about the safety standards at Watkins Glen.
"It's just a very antiquated racetrack and the safety is not at all up to NASCAR's standards," Newman said. "It's a shame that we have to have accidents like that to prove it."
Newman's pleas echoed the concerns voiced after the track's 2011 race, which included two violent wrecks. David Ragan, who was involved in a nasty crash with David Reutimann, said he'd seen better walls at dirt tracks and urged the addition of SAFER barriers.
Polesitter Jeff Gordon had led the first 29 laps, but Ambrose took over the lead at lap 33 after his team made a faster green-flag pit stop than Gordon's team. Still, Gordon was in second place until his car suddenly lost power and ruined a promising day.
Cole Whitt caused the first caution when his brakes failed and went head-first into a tire barrier, burying the nose of his car under a mountain of tires. He was uninjured.