WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- An underdog road course specialist would win at Watkins Glen International on Sunday and poach an unlikely berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Or so went the thinking. It was a completely plausible quirk or a flaw -- perspective pending -- in NASCAR's new formula for determining its 16-driver playoff field.
That driver wasn't necessarily supposed to be AJ Allmendinger, though. But it is.
The 32-year-old driver's long slog through a career of fits and starts picked up speed through the esses and around the carousel on Sunday, as he held off Watkins Glen savant Marcos Ambrose over a frantic final lap to win his first career Sprint Cup race. And with four events left in the regular season, he joined the Chase field as the 12th different winner of 2014.
"I don't have to hear anymore, 'AJ might be that next first-time winner,'" said Allmendinger, who's 24th in points and the lowest-ranked Chase contender. "I'm tired of that, so I don't have to hear about it anymore."
Allmendinger's win culminated a lengthy and surreal day in upstate New York, as three-time series champion Tony Stewart opted not to race his No. 14 Chevrolet after he struck and killed a competitor on track during a sprint car race on Saturday night. Drivers largely avoided the topic as emotions remained raw, but Allmendinger was among the most eloquent.
"You just try to come together. That's all you can do," he said. "You try to be thankful every day for the things that we have, the things that we're able to share together, and you also know that there's a lot less fortunate out there and there's a lot of disasters, whether it's in racing or not."
Thankfulness underscored Allmendinger's emotions -- spiced with mitigated glee -- as he looked toward a next phase of a star-crossed career of bad timing, bad decisions and second chances. After groping for footing with various teams to begin his Sprint Cup career he was afforded and lost his greatest chance with Team Penske because of a 2012 NASCAR suspension for a failed drug test he linked to Adderall. Released by Penske, but still held in regard there, he undertook a methodical rehabilitation of his career and image, driving part-time again for Penske in IndyCar in 2013, and then landing his current job with JTG Daugherty that same season. Penske was among many from other teams to congratulate him in Victory Lane.
"I have went through hell in this series, absolute hell," Allmendinger said. "Just to go through hell and back, and to know that this was my dream that I've worked so hard for over the last eight years was to win a race here ... it's all I talk about. It's what I am happy about one day and so hard on myself about the next day."
"I was like, 'Hey, if I run third that's almost as good as being able to win this thing because those two are just going to bring back the steering wheel only,'" Busch said. "I really thought they did a phenomenal job to beat the heck out of each other, maintain a pace that didn't allow me to get close enough."