After a horrifying tragedy Saturday night and another frightening crash the following afternoon, NASCAR and the racing world needed a lift Sunday afternoon.
It got it when underdogs AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose put on a thrilling show at the end of the race at Watkins Glen International.
Allmendinger’s surprise win is one of the feel-good stories of the season, and the sport needed it after Tony Stewart was involved in the fatal crash of another sprint-car driver late Saturday night.
With the NASCAR community and racing world reeling, the frightening crash between Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell at Watkins Glen didn’t help, making auto racing look very much like the dangerous sport that it is.
No outcome could save the day on such a tragic weekend, but Allmendinger’s stirring win helped ease the pain, if only for a brief moment.
Our winners and losers from Watkins Glen:
AJ Allmendinger — Allmendinger got a rare opportunity to win Sunday and he took full advantage of it. Allmendinger was up on the wheel like the best drivers in the business at Watkins Glen and he would not be denied. His fabulous driving earned him huge respect and will now pay off with a spot in the Chase, which is what the new Chase format is all about. He also produced the ultimate feel-good story, resurrecting his career and reaching the pinnacle after his drug suspension and fall two years ago.
Marcos Ambrose — Ambrose proved once again that no one is better on road courses, but he had to settle for second-best this time. But Ambrose once again proved to be one of the classiest drivers in the sport, being gracious in defeat and congratulating Allmendinger. It’s a shame both drivers probably won’t make the Chase.
Kyle Larson — Larson had trouble early, falling way behind and struggling for part of the race. But like he has done so often this season, he figured it out. At the end, there he was, racing his way into the top five and finishing fourth. The rookie proved once again that he is indeed a special talent. His day will come soon.
Kurt Busch — Busch didn’t win, but he was in position to, challenging Allmendinger and Ambrose right up to the very end. He proved once again that he is a highly underrated driver on road courses. And he delivered a top-five finish on a day when Stewart-Haas Racing desperately needed something positive.
Regan Smith — He wound up in a wreck and finished 37th, but you have to give Smith credit for stepping in for Tony Stewart at the last minute. Stewart made the right move by pulling out of the race after the tragic events of Saturday night. Smith had to hop on an early-morning flight to Watkins Glen, help Stewart’s team make last-minute adjustments and preparations and was running well until getting caught up in Jimmie Johnson’s crash. Smith did a great job in the most trying of circumstances.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Look who’s now got the points lead? Earnhardt finished just 11th, but he stayed out of trouble and ran a solid race. The reward was leaping ahead of teammate Jeff Gordon to take the points lead for the first time since the third week of the season.
Ryan Newman — Newman got tangled up with Greg Biffle and went for a wild ride into the guardrail at Watkins Glen. Though uninjured, he was not happy with the guardrails and safety features at the 57-year-old road course, and let everyone know it. You can’t blame Newman for being frustrated. He finished 41st and fell four spots in points in a very tight Chase race.
Michael McDowell — McDowell was right. When he crashes, he crashes big. A few years after a horrifying crash at Texas Motor Speedway, McDowell was involved in another one when Newman knocked him into the guardrail and fence. McDowell’s car lifted off the ground and he slammed into the guardrail so hard it took NASCAR one hour and 20 minutes to fix it. McDowell finished 42nd, but he was incredibly thankful and positive after such a frightening crash.
Watkins Glen — The track produces thrilling NASCAR races, but its image took a hit when Newman questioned its safety features after the scary crash. The track and parent company International Speedway Corp. must go to work immediately to upgrade its guardrails and fences to make the fast road course as safe as possible. No expense should be spared after a series of unsettling crashes in recent years.
Jeff Gordon — Gordon started on the pole, led the first 29 laps and may have had the car to beat until he suffered an electrical problem that knocked him out of the race. It cost him a 34th-place finish and his points lead.
Kyle Busch — When things go bad for Busch, they go bad in streaks. After three runnerup finishes in four races, he has finished 42nd and 40th in his last two races after his fender-banging incident with Martin Truex Jr. Busch has finished 28th or worse in three of his last five races to plummet to 15th in the standings. That early-season win is suddenly looking huge.
Jimmie Johnson — Speaking of things going bad, Johnson is on one of the worst slides of his career, with four finishes of 28th or worse in his last five races. After wrecking late in the race, he lost another spot in the standings, slipping to seventh. When will it end for Six-Time?