Author Note: Before going into my take on Sunday’s race, I want to start off by saying both as a writer of this sport and a fan of going on 20 years of it as well, I send out my deepest sympathies, prayers, and well wishes to the family, friends, and fellow racers of Kevin Ward Jr, the young man who was tragically struck by Tony Stewart Saturday night in a sprint car race and unfortunately passed away from his injuries.
Also I want to send my thoughts to Stewart himself, who elected to sit out this race due to the incident. I know it was hard to do, but to him there was something bigger going on, and he needed to get away and grieve in private, away from fans and media.
Now, onto my take on Sunday’s race:
It was July of 2012 when the NASCAR world was shocked for the second time due to its substance abuse policy at the top level of competition. The first time was in 2009, when Jeremy Mayfield was suspended from competition, and has since fought to clear his name, while losing all his assets. Three years later, it was A.J. Allmendinger.
Right before competition in Daytona on that summer night, he too was told he failed the previous week’s random drug screening, and was suspended from the sport. But, unlike Mayfield, he admitted to taking something he thought would be out of his system which was used during his workouts, but ultimately wasn’t.
He lost his ride, a marquee ride at Penske Racing, and the wonder of if he would return began.
But, thanks to NASCAR’s “Road to Recovery” program, he worked his way back, and his suspension was lifted. But, he had no ride, so he took some opportunities in open-wheel competition, and impressed. Penske noticed, and after letting him run open-wheel races, including the Indy 500, he gave him some chances in Nationwide races, winning once. He then worked back into Cup, taking opportunities at Phoenix Racing, and also at JTG Daugherty. Team owner Brad Daugherty liked what he saw, and made him the full-time driver for the team.
The single-car operation was under-funded, but had support this season from Childress, including cars and engines from the Earnhardt-Childress Racing technical team. This race was their opportunity to make a statement, and they tested extensively at the track, giving them the opportunity they felt was right to win their first race.
After all the circumstances years ago, this young man worked his way back up, and beat some of the best road racers at Watkins Glen to secure his first-career Sprint Cup win, lock this single-car operation into the Chase, and show that when given a second chance, one can make the most of it.
The fans roared their approval as if it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the victory, everyone standing, cheering, roaring their approval of this young man for making a comeback in the sport many thought was impossible.
Two years ago, his career was in shambles, and it appeared that possibly his life in NASCAR was done, and he was going to be looking for work elsewhere. Instead, he showed that the Road to Recovery program works, and when given a second chance, you don’t take it for granted. A.J. Allmendinger has completed his comeback in NASCAR, and that is something worth celebrating.
RESULTS: 1-Allmendinger 2-Ambrose 3-Kurt Busch 4-Larson 5-Edwards 6-Logano 7-Harvick 8-Biffle 9-Kenseth 10-Vickers
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Earnhardt Jr. 18-Almirola 24-Hamlin 28-Johnson 34-Gordon 35-Keselowski 40-Kyle Busch
CAUTIONS: 6 for 17 laps. Lap 11-14 (#26 accident-T1), 52-54 (#24 slow on track-FS), 57-59 (# 95, 31, 16, 23, 10 accident-T5), 79-81 (#98 stopped on track-Inner Loop), 83-85 (#48, 14, 20, 42 accident-T1), 88-88 (#11 accident-Pit road, #33, 66 accident-T1).
LEAD CHANGES: 5 among 6 drivers. Gordon 1-29, Kahne 30-32, Ambrose 33-51, Johnson 52-57, Edwards 58-60, Allmendinger 61-90.
TIME OF RACE: 2 Hrs, 26 Mins, 48 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 90.123 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 1.16 Seconds
POINT STANDINGS: 1. Earnhardt Jr, 773 points*; 2. Gordon, -5*; 3. Kenseth, -70; 4. Keselowski, -77*; 5. Logano, -102*; 6. Edwards, -115*; 7. Johnson, -123*; 8. Harvick, -128*; 9. Newman, -128; 10. Larson, -138. *Race Winner, Chase Eligible
Other Chase Eligible Drivers: Kyle Busch (15th, 1 win), Denny Hamlin (20th, 1 win), Aric Almirola (22nd, 1 win), Kurt Busch (23rd, 1 win), A.J. Allmendinger (24th, 1 win)