To be the best, you have to beat the best, the saying goes.
That’s exactly what A.J. Allmendinger did Sunday.
Allmendinger, a former open-wheel star, went toe-to-toe and fender-to-fender during the final two laps with one of road racing’s top talents in Marcos Ambrose to win Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen at Watkins Glen International.
The victory paid huge dividends for Allmendinger and his single-car JTG Daugherty Racing team.
The win is Allmendinger’s first in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series and all-but ensures his first spot in the Chase and chance to win the series championship.
The victory also served as redemption of sorts for the native of Los Gatos, Calif., who lost a top-level ride at Team Penske in 2012 after he was indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for violating its substance-abuse policy.
Allmendinger,32, completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program and returned to racing months later.
“I knew Marcos was going to try to move me out of the way if he had the opportunity. To his credit he didn’t wreck me,” Allmendinger said. “He just moved me like he should have.
“That was just a fun race. Thanks to the fans for enduring two red flags, the track workers for putting the track back together a couple of times. Everybody at home, if you didn’t love that you are not a fan of racing.”
The feel-good story was exactly what NASCAR needed as it dealt with the aftermath of star Tony Stewart’s involvement in the death Saturday night of fellow racer Kevin Ward Jr. at a local dirt track.
A sprint car driven by Stewart struck and killed Ward, 20, as he was walking on the track expressing his displeasure with Stewart over a prior incident on the track.
Early Sunday, Stewart elected to pull himself out of the race and Nationwide Series driver Regan Smith drove Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet to a 37th-place finish.
“This NASCAR community, as a whole we’re a family, and when anything like that happens, it’s something that you don’t just kind of erase or forget about,” Allmendinger said.
“All of our thoughts and prayers – and it may not seem like it, or I wish there was more to do – but it goes to the Ward family and what happened. It also goes to Tony, because it’s not like he’s sitting there and forgetting about it. It’s a tough scenario.”
The victory did not come easy for Allmendinger, nor quickly.
The race was stopped three times for a total of more than 1 hour, 40 minutes for track repairs, first to walls after a five-car wreck and then replacing sand barrels at the entrance to pit road that were wiped out in a spin by Denny Hamlin.
Allmendinger took the lead for the first time on Lap 61 of 90 and led the final 30 laps but twice swapped the lead with Ambrose during the course of a single lap.
“I left nothing on the table. I tried to rattle his cage and couldn’t shake him,” said Ambrose, who won Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at the track. Ambrose has won four Nationwide and two Cup races at the Glen.
“We raced fair and square to the end there. It was a tough couple laps, but it was fair. We were both giving it to each other pretty hard,” he said.
“No harm, no foul.”
Kurt Busch finished third, Kyle Larson fourth and Carl Edwards fifth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th and took the series points lead. He holds a five-point advantage over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon heading into next weekend’s race at Michigan.