Quite simply, Sunday at Watkins Glen was a scenario the 2014 Chase format was designed to produce.
A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, two drivers fighting not only for a win but their first-ever Chase berths, battled throughout multiple restarts during the final 10 laps of the race and Allmendinger took the win after forcing his way inside of Ambrose in turn six on the next-to-last lap.
Allmendinger got the pole position for the green-white-checker restart after a pass of Ambrose just before the caution came out for Denny Hamlin's crash. After a red flag to clean up the mess from Hamlin's crash, Allmendinger kept Ambrose at bay through turn one. The two traded contact up to the esses and after the duo entered the inner loop, Ambrose moved Allmendinger out of the groove in turn five. But Allmendinger kept his foot in the throttle and had the inside line into turn six. Once he slammed doors with Ambrose and cleared him off the corner, the race was his.
And so was a Chase berth as Allmendinger became the 12th driver in 2014 to win a race.
"I just knew the restart – 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 so I just leaned on him into the next corner. I knew if I could get a gap and get [Ambrose and third-place Kurt Busch] racing behind me it was game over, so that's what I did."
Ambrose is no stranger to crazy Watkins Glen finishes. He won at the track in 2012 after beating Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in an oil-slicked final lap.
"First off, congratulations to A.J.," Ambrose said. "Because he really deserved that win. I gave him everything I had to rattle his cage and he withstood the pressure."
Before the season, the Chase was reformatted to include 16 drivers with berths virtually guaranteed if a driver won in the first 26 races of the season. While Ambrose and Allmendinger would have undoubtedly battled as hard as they did for the win under any points format, the redesign added significance to the battle. With 11 winners in the first 21 races, a win was a ticket to NASCAR's version of the playoffs because neither driver was going to get there without one.
Neither was high enough in the points standings to fill any of the remaining non-winner Chase spots on points and both have distinguished road racing backgrounds. Oh, and neither Ambrose or Allmendinger has been exceptional on NASCAR's ovals. Both came to Watkins Glen with the race as their best – and maybe only – shot to get into the Chase. Allmendinger is now in. Barring anything unforeseen over the next four races, Ambrose is out
And not only is Allmendinger qualified for the postseason, he's got his first-ever Sprint Cup Series win just two years after his Cup career was potentially over. In 2012, he was suspended by NASCAR for violating the sport's substance abuse policy.
He subsequently lost his ride with Team Penske and missed 15 races in 2012. In 2013, he landed a part-time Nationwide Series and IndyCar ride with Penske (where he won at Mid-Ohio in the Nationwide Series) and drove in 18 Cup races for two teams. In the limited Cup spell he impressed the owners at JTG-Daugherty Racing to give him another shot full-time in the Cup Series.
In victory lane, he was congratulated by Penske and Richard Childress, whose team has an alliance with JTG-Daugherty.
"That just means more than anything to me to have those guys being such a big supporter of mine," Allmendinger said. "Obviously Roger and the whole Penske Racing organization for what they did for me last year and R.C. for this whole alliance. He's opened the doors to this race team, given us everything we can have to go out there and compete and we won a race. We won a Sprint Cup race."
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