As the NASCAR community mourned the death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., which led to Tony Stewart’s decision not to participate at Watkins Glen, the racing did go on at one of the sport’s more challenging road courses.
And with that overlay of respect for all involved in the tragedy, here is what was surprising and not surprising from the 29th annual Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.
Surprising: For at least two drivers, one with a powerhouse team and the other from a small operation, the race was all about power, from the four-time champion driver who lost it to the first-time winning driver who dug down deep to find the sheer willpower to get to Victory Lane.
Jeff Gordon, whose sponsor Drive to End Hunger just announced their renewal for 2015, looked like the man to beat, scoring the pole position and leading laps early in the race. Then, inexplicably, Gordon’s No. 24 machine slowed on the track and he lost power, finishing a disappointing 34th and losing the points lead to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I’ve got to get with the team and find out what caused it,” Gordon said. “It looks like we had a battery go dead, two batteries go dead. I didn’t see anything on the volts meter that stood out or anything really going on there that was alarming.”
The other driver, AJ Allmendinger, drove the race of his life against Watkins Glen expert Marcos Ambrose, running on sheer willpower, as he was bound and determined to get his first ever win in the Sprint Cup Series.
“I wasn’t going to let Marcos take that from me,” AJ Allmendinger, driver of the No. 47 Scott Products Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing, said simply. “I’ve dreamed about this moment, and I’m not going to forget it.”
Not Surprising: It is not often that the race winner pays homage to the track workers, but AJ Allmendinger did just that, recognizing those that had to make extensive repairs, not only to the Armco barriers but also to the pit road barrels, after two horrific crashes.
The first crash involved Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell, resulting in almost a rebuild of fencing, and the second involved Denny Hamlin hitting the pit barriers hard. Track workers labored furiously making repairs for almost two hours after the serious damage from the two crashes.
“For me to be able to have that race be so memorable about how it ended, for the fans, they were so great for staying around through all the red flags, the track workers did such a great job to fix the fence and everything,” the Dinger said. “It’s just a memorable day to go out there and remember everything that just happened.”
Surprising: Just when you thought that Kyle Larson’s rookie mistake of missing the inner loop would lead to a surprisingly bad finish, the Rookie of the Year contender pulled it off once again, scoring a surprising top-five finish.
“It was a really good day for us,” The driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet said. “We were terrible all weekend long. I was down on myself. It’s probably the most frustrated I’ve ever been with myself, aside from racing sprint cars in Pennsylvania.”
“I can’t believe we finished top five,” Larson continued. “It feels like a win. I was hoping for a top 15 or top 20 going into today. I’m totally shocked and super excited.”
Not Surprising: While it was not at all surprising that the No. 9 Ford of Marcos Ambrose was strong, taking the checkered flag in the runner up position, the Australian also had some Ford comrades with whom to celebrate. In fact, there were four Fords that finished in the top-ten at the Glen.
“I left nothing on the table,” runner up Ambrose said. “We just came up a little short. I am just really proud of my Stanley team. We put a lot of effort into this race and really tried to win it. We won yesterday and came up one short today.”
“I am glad Jimmy Fennig put us in a position to be up there for the win,” Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Kellogg’s/Cheez-It Ford and fifth place finisher, said. “I am sure like everyone up there that you want the last few laps to do over again. It was a blast and a lot of fun.”
“That was crazy to say the least,” Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, said after finishing sixth. “We had about a fifth place car and had to go through a lot to get back to that point. We fought hard with this Shell Pennzoil Ford and put tires on it late and was very aggressive on the restarts and got a few spots back. I wish there were more laps. The tires were worth a few there at the end but I needed a few more laps there at the end.”
“The racing was really good,” Greg Biffle, driver of the No. 16 3M Ford said after finishing eighth. “We were able to make up a lot of ground. It is aggressive and as people got more comfortable it got nuts. You just try to do the best you can and protect your position and race hard. That is about all you can do.”
Surprising: Jimmie Johnson’s troubles continued to plague him, even at Watkins Glen. The six-time champion went for a dramatic spin late in the race, resulting in a 28th place finish. Although he has three wins to his credit and is solidly in the Chase, Johnson fell one position in the point standings, from sixth to seventh as a result.
Not Surprising: Perhaps it was because he can relate to having to overcome adversity and seek redemption in the sport, but third place finisher Kurt Busch had nothing but praise for race winner AJ Allmendinger.
“He won the race today in a fashion that everyone is proud of him for doing, to beat one of the best in the world at driving these stock cars,” the driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet said of race winner Allmendinger. “He deserves the trophy, and he had to pull from within. He had to dig in deep, and he had to believe in himself all the way through this.”
“He’s put himself through all those mental challenges, and today he persevered. He didn’t break down and he brought home a victory, so we’re all very proud of him.”
Surprising: Brakes, or the lack thereof, were responsible for some of the bigger crashes of the day, especially for Cole Whitt, who crashed his No. 26 Bully Hill Vineyards Toyota Camry surprisingly hard into the tire barriers, finishing 43rd.
“It just seemed like something in the rear brakes faded or just actually just completely lost them going into (turn) one,” Whitt said. “It seemed like the front was trying to stop but the rear wasn’t at all and the pedal was just going to the floor on brakes. Not a whole lot you can do there. I was trying to get it turned but there was no way I was going to be able to.”
“Sucks for the guys but I know we’ll rebound.”
Past champion Brad Keselowski also suffered from tire issues, finishing a surprising 35<sup>th</sup> in his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.
“We had something in the brakes that broke,” Keselowski said. “At Watkins Glen you can’t run without brakes.”
Not Surprising: Matt Kenseth, still without a win, continued his run of good points days, advancing one spot up to third, just 70 behind new points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth was the top-finishing Toyota driver with a ninth-place result in the race at the Glen.
“It was an okay finish,” the driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota, said. “Things didn’t pan out quite as we were hoping. But, overall not a terrible day.”
Surprising: Danica Patrick was making quite the bear bond fashion statement after surviving an accident in practice, as well as one during the race. The driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet soldiered on in her bear-bonded race car to finish 21st, after gaining 22 spots
“It was a tough day,” Patrick said. “It was a long race, but Gibson (Tony, crew chief) and the GoDaddy guys worked on the car and we got a 21st out of it, which isn’t bad with the weekend we had.”
Not Surprising: Regan Smith, who was called on at the last minute to replace Tony Stewart in the race, summed up the situation best after an on-track incident at lap 81 caused him to finish 37th.
“It’s my job to be able to drive a race car and it took me a little longer to get acclimated than I would have hoped it would and felt like at the end there I was finally starting to make some progress and I was able to get consistent with the car and understood the car a little better and what it was doing,” the substitute driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet said. “These guys build fast race cars at Stewart-Haas and I was thankful to get to get in one. Definitely not under the circumstances.”
“My day really doesn’t matter right now,” Smith continued. “There are a lot of people more important than me at the moment; so we’re thinking about all those people and our prayers are with them.”