— -- 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."
Ambrose was second on Sunday, followed by Kurt Busch, rookie Kyle Larson and Carl Edwards. Allmendinger led a race-high 30 laps.
"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."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the points lead from Jeff Gordon, who fell to second, five points back. Allmendinger's win reduced to four the number of Chase transfer spots now available to winless drivers. Winless Greg Biffle, who entered the race clinging to the last spot, dropped out of the boundary by eight points despite finishing eighth. Winless Kasey Kahne finished 12th to drop 12 points from the transfer spot.
After a restart with four laps left, Ambrose passed Allmendinger for the lead, but surrendered it entering Turn 1 as a caution flew for simultaneous but unrelated crashes involving Alex Kennedy and Denny Hamlin.
Allmendinger maintained the lead on a restart, and after a tenacious door-to-door tussle with Ambrose around the 2.45-mile course, pulled away to win by 1.16 seconds.
Pole sitter Gordon dueled with Ambrose for the first half of the race, but his No. 24 Chevrolet was stricken with an electrical problem on Lap 50 that dropped him to 40th after a lengthy pit stop. He finished 34th.
The race was red-flagged three times, once for 81 minutes after a vicious wreck in Turn 5 on Lap 57. Michael McDowell's No. 95 Ford was sent airborne, its dislodged rear housing shredding a section of metal barrier, after striking Ryan Newman's No. 31 Chevrolet. Newman had nosed hard into a similar barrier on the right side of the track and careened back into McDowell's path after apparently being nudged by Greg Biffle. Newman and McDowell were evaluated and released from the infield care center.
After others suggested he played a key role in the crash, Newman rebuked the lack of modern safety barriers at a facility where wicked airborne crashes have become typical.
"The SAFER barrier doesn't exist here. There are no concrete walls," he said. "It's just a very antiquated racetrack and the safety is not at all up to NASCAR's standards, and it's a shame that we have to have accidents like that to prove it."
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton defended the use of so-called Armco barriers in a carousel area where high speeds and a narrow racing surface have proved a combustible combination.
"Not all places are places for SAFER barriers," he said. "There are different types of systems to slow the cars down."
The aftermath of Tony Stewart's fatal collision with Kevin Ward Jr. dominated the tone of the morning inside the garage and in the Twitterverse and cable television and radio, with debate churning over Stewart's motives and his, NASCAR's and his sponsors' responsibilities.
Although Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli said in the morning that the team was "business as usual" following the incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York, the team announced at 10:15 a.m. ET that Stewart had opted not to compete. Stewart released a statement within a half hour after the race, saying, "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."
Ward's family issued a statement of appreciation for the racing community's support and asked for time to grieve.
Regan Smith, who had finished fifth in the Nationwide race at Watkins Glen on Saturday, was secured by 8:30 a.m. to race the No. 14 Chevrolet and commuted via jet and helicopter from North Carolina with Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick.
A surreal scene developed around Stewart's garage stall, including onlookers, local and national news crews. When Smith finally arrived just more than an hour before the race, toting a black duffel bag and accompanied by Hendrick, who was carrying his seat inserts, local police, NASCAR officials and several SHR crew men oversaw his acclimation to the race car's seat and pedals.
Smith, who had not competed in Sprint Cup since the 2013 Coca-Cola 600, was involved in a late wreck and finished 37th.
Ambrose, a nine-year NASCAR veteran who could return to Australia to resume a championship career in V8 Supercars, congratulated the winner, grinning all the while on pit road afterward. He said the right things, expressed hope that he could still snatch a Chase spot with a less likely win at Michigan next week. But his glint seemed pained as the din and smoke from Allmendinger's burnout began filling the air.
"I can't remember much of it, but I know there was a lot of door-banging going on, a lot of corners we went round side by side," said Ambrose, who has two Cup wins and four Nationwide wins at Watkins Glen. "I got my tires really hot during that and I slid coming off Turn 11 after I got the lead and he was able to get it back before the caution dropped. That was probably the difference between winning and losing the race right there."