WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — AJ Allmendinger’s journey is almost complete.
With a new contract, sponsor extensions and a solid one-car team at JTG Daugherty Racing, Allmendinger became a winner in Sprint Cup for the first time on a somber Sunday, outdueling Marcos Ambrose in the final two laps at Watkins Glen International.
“I dreamed about this moment and I’m not going to forget it,” said Allmendinger, making his 213th Cup start. “It’s just a dream come true.”
The day began on a solemn note when three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart pulled out of the race 12 hours after he struck and killed 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. in a race after Ward climbed from his car on a small dirt track in nearby Canandaigua.
Allmendinger offered his condolences to the Ward family after he won, saying, “We’re a community here, we’re thinking about you.”
“It’s a tough time for everybody,” Allmendinger said. “This NASCAR community, as a whole, we’re a family. When anything like that happens, it’s something that you don’t get time to erase and forget about. Our thoughts and prayers go to the Ward family and what happened.
“And it also goes to Tony. It’s not like he’s sitting there and forgetting about it.”
In a statement released during the race by a spokesman, Stewart said: “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.”
Regan Smith drove Stewart’s car and finished 37th after having to start from the back of the 43-car field and getting caught in a late accident.
It was the second straight time Stewart missed the race at The Glen, where he has a NASCAR-record five victories. Last year, he broke his leg in a sprint car accident in Iowa days before the Cup race and missed the rest of the season.
Allmendinger’s life changed two years ago in the hours before the July race at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR officials had just kicked him out of the track, suspending Allmendinger indefinitely for failing a random drug test.
The failed drug test sidelined him for more than three months and cost him his job with Penske Racing. It also spurred much soul searching, and after a handful of one-off Cup rides he eventually landed a full-time Cup ride last August with JTG Daugherty Racing.
To break through the way Allmendinger did only added to the lore of this race, which has been decided four straight times by fender-banging dashes to the checkered flag. Ambrose won two of those and Kyle Busch the other.
An expert road racer from his days in open-wheel, Allmendinger beat the best in Ambrose, who has been dominant in NASCAR’s top two series at The Glen, also winning four straight Nationwide events.
Ambrose was going for a weekend sweep after capturing the Zippo 200 on Saturday.
“I’m thrilled for AJ,” said Ambrose, who drove for JTG Daugherty before Allmendinger.
The victory made JTG Daugherty Racing eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup title.