A.J. Allmendinger capitalized on his road course potential and claimed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win Sunday at Watkins Glen International, vaulting himself into the Chase for the Championship. Allmendinger was in control after the first red-flag period of the race, and held off the charging Marcos Ambrose in what was some of the most intense racing of the season.
A vicious accident on lap 55 involving Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell required replacement of a section of guardrail that held the race in a red-flag holding pattern for more than an hour. The No. 47 car took the point when racing resumed. Allmendinger's lead was not safe, though. He would have to endure a number of restarts, and even another red-flag period before seeing the checkered flag.
The battle at the front raged through the last 30 laps as the two contenders saw their championship hopes riding on Sunday's victory. Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch waited behind the two contenders, ready to pick up the scarps of any wreck. In the end it was Allmendinger's prowess on restarts and race speed that held off the charging No. 9 of Ambrose for what was a popular win for a driver that just a few years ago wondered if his racing career was finished.
A.J. Allmendinger - Allmendinger found himself leading Sunday's race after its first red flag period, but was questionable on fuel and needed caution before the end to be sure he could make it. Those cautions came, and he gave his JTG Daugherty Racing team a great performance. Ambrose threw everything he could at the No. 47, but Allmendinger absorbed it and raced hard to maintain position and claim his first series win along with a spot in the Chase. Allmendinger has yet to score a top-10 finish at Michigan International Speedway, despite having 12 races under his belt. His average finish at the track is 20.9, but he could leverage some momentum from last week's stellar performance to propel himself to his best finish at the track.
Marcos Ambrose - Ambrose played his cards well at Watkins Glen, but all of his efforts could not topple Allmendinger. The Australian was one of the fastest cars all afternoon, and he had himself in a perfect position at the finish, but fell short. The two drivers delivered some of the closest racing of the season in a grandstand finish, but Ambrose was simply not able to complete the job. The result means the No. 9 team has a mountain to climb to get into the Chase. Work on that will have to start this week. He scored a disappointing 25th-place finish at Michigan in June, but did land the pole here in 2012. His lone top-5 and three top-10s at the track help him to an average finish of 21.4.
Kurt Busch - Busch demonstrated his abilities as a road course racer again last Sunday. The former champion was in position to win should anything happen to the cars ahead of him, and he did well to keep his nose clean after a long afternoon of close racing. He came home third, which ended his string of consecutive finishes outside of the top 10 at three. Busch finished 13th when he last visited Michigan, and his two wins there help his average finish to 20.9, though eight DNFs leave plenty of question marks. He can take a lot of heart from Sunday's effort to use as fuel for his Chase effort, and his performances are improving at just the right time.
Carl Edwards - Astute pit strategy and clean driving enabled Edwards to have a shot at sweeping the 2014 season's road course races. The No. 99 stayed out after the race's first red flag period, which was a gamble. He needed laps under caution to make it to the finish, which ended up playing to his favor. Edwards took a 16th-place starting position and vaulted himself to a top-5 finish with that strategy. Sunday's top-5 was his first since winning at Sonoma and just his second in the last 10 races. His Michigan record is among the best with two wins, nine top-5s, and 15 top-10s to record an average finish of 9.0 at the track. Edwards is in the Chase, but is hoping to build on Sunday's performance.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon arguably suffered Sunday's biggest disappointment. The championship contender dominated the opening segment of the race, holding off Marcos Ambrose in what looked likely to become a two-car battle for the spoils. Instead, Gordon's car suddenly lost power and coasted down the front straight. He was pushed back to his pit and the crew worked behind the wall to locate and fix the electrical issue that cut power. Gordon finished sixth at Michigan in June, and has a superb record at the tri-oval. His 43 starts have produced two victories, 18 top-5s, and 26 top-10s. His average finish is 12.3 with an average start of 11.3. Statistics that good over such a long period of time are rare, so Gordon should rebound this week.
Ryan Newman - Newman had been climbing the point standings prior to Sunday's Watkins Glen round. The driver of the No. 31 was piecing together another respectable race before trouble struck. Unfortunately, Newman lost control behind Greg Biffle, sending him into the wall and collecting Michael McDowell. Damage to the guardrail where McDowell's car made contact required extensive repair and put the field under a red flag, but no time would have been enough to repair the damage to Newman's car and his day was over. Newman finished 15th in June's Michigan race, but he has won twice at the track. His average finish is 17.4, so chances are good that Newman can overcome last week's trouble to get his charge through the points back on track.
Kyle Busch - Opportunity turned to disappointment for Busch at Watkins Glen. The No. 18 didn't have the greatest qualifying effort, but was hoping to race through the field. Those hopes were dashed when he left his pit box with a gas can still attached to the car. The resulting stop-and-go penalty put a dent in his progress, but almost immediate contact with Martin Truex Jr. capped off a very unfortunate series of laps for the driver, relegating him to a 40th-place finish. Busch does have a Michigan win to his credit, but his average finish from 19 races there is only 17.8. He finished 31 laps behind the leaders in 41st position there in June, and needs something better next week to build confidence before the Chase.
Brad Keselowski - Prospects for Keselowski to have a great day last Sunday turned flat when brake trouble thwarted his effort. The No. 2 car lost brake fluid from the cylinder, requiring the team to spend a great deal of time in the garage making repairs. He was five laps behind the leaders when the first red flag waved, and didn't have much hope of moving forward when the action resumed. Though he was able to return when the race's action resumed, Keselowski wasn't able to move forward and ended the afternoon four laps down in 35th position. Keselowski finished third the last time the series visited Michigan, but now his results aren't as consistent as they were in June.
Paul Menard - Very quickly after starting Sunday's event at Watkins Glen, Menard found himself with brake issues. He was forced to the garage to make repairs before rejoining the fray three laps behind the leaders. He hasn't finished inside the top 20 for the last five races now, and has consistently fallen backward after such a strong start to the 2014 season. However, one of Menard's three top-5s this season came in June at Michigan, and the Richard Childress Racing driver desperately needs another to turn around what has been a huge loss of momentum. June's top-5 is one of Menard's three at the track and his average finish is 19.3. While Menard doesn't have a bad Michigan record, his recent performances have been lackluster.
Kyle Larson - The race's biggest surprise performance came from the rookie Larson. The driver started his first Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen from 23rd position with little expectation burdening him. He had his ups and downs throughout the day, avoiding crashes and picking up positions whenever possible. When all was said and done he found himself putting stylish passes together in the closing laps at the front of the field. Larson finished the race in fourth position, an incredible result for the young driver. Fantasy players will remember that Larson scored one of his top-10 finishes in June at Michigan, leading two laps en route. Larson continues to be one of the more impressive rookies in recent memory, and remains a threat to claim a spot in the Chase.