Tuesday , October 21 2014
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Thinkin’ Out Loud: Watkins Glen A Mix Of Tony’s Tragedy, AJ’s Triumph

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Watkins Glen A Mix Of Tony’s Tragedy, AJ’s Triumph

Key Moment – On lap 78, Josh Wise stopped in the grass on the inside of the exit of the Bus Stop. Rather than throw a local caution to give Wise an opportunity to refire the car and continue on, NASCAR threw a full-course caution. As a result, AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose drew immensely closer to being able to stretch their fuel to the finish. The resulting chaos on the restart brought another caution flag and the two leaders were assured of enough E15 to complete the race distance, eliminating fuel mileage from the equation.

In a Nutshell – Marcos Ambrose and Jeff Gordon were the class of the field from qualifying to just past the halfway point when Gordon’s electrical system went south and eliminated him from contention. While those two were on a two stop strategy, AJ Allmendinger was on a three stop pit strategy. The caution for Gordon’s powerless car was followed by a brutal crash for Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell on the back straight that resulted in a red flag situation for over an hour to repair the Armco barrier. The pit stops after the red flag put Allmendinger at the front of the field and set him up for a run at the win. In the end, Ambrose was able to get back to the front and trade off the lead with Allmendinger but never led again at the start/finish line, as the driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty led the final 30 laps to score his first career Sprint Cup win.

2014 Watkins Glen CUP AJ Allmendinger pack racing CIA

AJ Allmendinger at the front of the field in Watkins Glen. The driver scored his first career Cup victory Sunday in a thrilling finish. Credit: CIA Editorial Photography

Dramatic Moment – On the final restart of the race, Ambrose got ahead of Allmendinger coming through the carousel by gently nudging him off-line. Allmendinger was undeterred and powered back to muscle his way back into the lead in turn 10 and held pulled away to the victory.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

While there are other stories in the headlines this week, the only thing that people will be talking about is the tragic incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. Just past the midway point of the feature race for the Empire Sprint Series, Tony Stewart was dueling with Ward for position when the 20 year-old driver jumped the cushion in turn two and spun out. Ward felt as though he had been done wrong by Stewart, quickly clamored out of his car and walked down into the racing groove to display his displeasure with the Cup series driver. He dodged the No. 45 of Chuck Hebing, who swerved to miss the upset driver and charged toward Stewart’s car. As Stewart passed Ward, the right rear tire made contact with him, knocking him 50 – 70 feet down the back straight, where his body wound up lifeless, face down on the track. Safety personnel were quickly on the scene and first aid was administered but the young driver was transported to F.F. Thompson Health Center in Canandaigua where he was pronounced Dead on Arrival at 11:15 PM.

The ramifications of this event are impossible to fully comprehend at this point, but some of them are obvious. Stewart is a Cup Series driver who is trying to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The Ontario County Sheriff, Philip Povero, repeatedly pointed out to anyone who would listen over the weekend, that the investigation is focusing on an on-track incident and there are no criminal charges being sought or pending for Stewart. While Stewart is free to go about his business and compete for the Sprint Cup title, he has to live with the fact that the vehicle he was piloting killed someone. The act of running for a championship seems trivial in the face of ending a life far too early.

Stewart is also a team owner. In a sport dominated by corporate sponsorship in the tens of millions of dollars, from companies that are increasingly demanding how their marketing budgets are handled, the public relations hit from a viral video showing a driver losing his life just might be more than some organizations are willing to chance. With four Cup teams and the hundreds of employees who depend on that sponsorship for their livelihood, Stewart might be spending weeks trying to allay the fears of his corporate partners.

Tony Stewart Racing is a completely different organization that competes in the World of Outlaws and USAC sanctions. They field Sprint Cars with and without wings, similar to the car that Stewart was piloting on Saturday night. Similar to that corporate PR difficulties for his Cup organization, the fact that the incident involved a car similar to the ones fielded for TSR could make it a tough sell to keep the partners on board.

Just three weeks ago the Camping World Truck series ran the 2nd Annual Mudsummer Classic at Stewart’s Eldora Speedway. Stewart is also a co-owner of Paducah International Raceway and Macon Speedway. The blemish on his name could have a detrimental effect on his ability to secure sponsors for those race tracks. If Stewart struggles to land sponsors, the major events at Eldora and lesser events at PIR and Macon could be in jeopardy.

The bottom line is that he is facing an uphill climb with people who have no clue about racing. Uninformed journalists who don’t take the time to properly research stories will inaccurately report what occurred at Canandaigua and the image damage could take years to repair. Headlines like – Tony Stewart Kills Fellow Driver, Sprint Cup Driver Runs Over Driver on Foot and Angry Driver Mows Down Fellow Competitor are the kind of sensationalist stories that will inaccurately portray Stewart as a killer.

The incident on Saturday was tragic and has altered multiple lives forever. Not only the Ward family and Stewart’s family but the people in the stands, other drivers, employees and friends have all been affected. As the investigation continues, and more facts are presented, the story will hopefully become clearer. No one will ever know what Ward was thinking when he went out into the racing groove challenging Stewart as he drove by. Hopefully we will eventually learn the details of the event as Stewart saw them. Whatever the case may be, it was an accident that looks as though it will not result in criminal charges. How that fact translates into Stewart’s professional image can be impacted through several avenues. The racing community can rally to Stewart’s side and champion the simple fact that it was a horrible accident that shouldn’t have happened and will hopefully never happen again. NASCAR can help set the record straight with these national and local news outlets with the facts and refute inaccurate claims and statements. Finally Stewart will have to work hard to rebuild his image. How he can do that is hard to say. Some people will never accept anything short of life in prison while others feel it was a terrible accident and feel for Stewart. Winning the life in prison crowd will never happen, but repairing the image for Stewart with the rest of the fans will be a process that could take days, months or years.

The bottom line is that Kevin Ward Jr. lost his life through a series of incidents that no one seems to remember ever seeing before. Tony Stewart has to live the rest of his life with the memory that his car is what took Ward’s life. Ward’s family will live with the haunting images of the contact with the right rear tire, his body flying through the air and then laying lifeless on the race track. That memory will never go away for anyone, but how everyone deals with it going forward will be a very tough question to answer.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Jeff Gordon sat on the pole for the race at The Glen on Sunday and was running in the top 2 for most of the first half of the event except during a round of pit stops. Just past halfway Gordon’s car lost power. He switched the battery and the ignition system to no avail. He stopped on track and ultimately went to the garage long enough to lose four laps. A very promising weekend soured at that point and saw the potential race winning car come home in 34th.

2014 Watkins Glen CUP Jeff Gordon pack racing CIA

Jeff Gordon was at the front at Watkins Glen, having another strong race until a loose connection cut the power off on his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet. Credit: CIA Editorial Photography

Michael McDowell was minding his own business, hoping his teams pit strategy was going to pay off. On lap 57 it quickly changed to wondering how many bruises he would have. Ryan Newman crashed on the back straight, nosing into the Armco barrier and bouncing across the track. McDowell was there and had his car turned hard into the outside wall. The rear end of the car was ripped out, the barrier was damaged severely and the car almost flipped over. Fortunately McDowell was ok after the wreck thanks to the safety of the car. While there will probably be changes made to the track for the future due to the wreck, the better choice would be to bypass that section of the track and have the Cup cars run “The Boot”. They didn’t run it initially because the drivers and equipment weren’t sophisticated enough to do it. That is no longer the case.

Similar to Gordon, Brad Keselowski was feeling confident about the weekend at the Glen. He started ninth and was up to the top 5 before lap 30. Unfortunately his brakes began to fade and he had to head to the garage shortly after the halfway point. The rear brake reservoir on the No. 2 had lost all fluid and the system had to be repaired before he could return to the track. When the checkered flag flew Keselowski was one lap behind Gordon in 35th position.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

AJ Allmendinger‘s crew made a decision early in the race to run it on a three stop strategy. In order for that strategy to work out the caution flags had to fall just right, and they did exactly that. Allmendinger pitted shortly after the first caution of the event for the first time and before the yellow flew for Jeff Gordon for the second time. He topped off after the red flag was rescinded for the Newman/McDowell wreck and was done for the day. The last three cautions of the event simply assured Allmendinger that he would make it to the finish.

Kevin Harvick took the green flat and shortly thereafter felt something under his feet. Somehow the team had left a bag full of lead shot in the car that is normally used to mimic the weight of the driver when they aren’t around to go through technical inspection. Harvick had to pit on lap two to have the bag removed from the car. His team topped off his tank and he rejoined the battle. Thanks to the timing on caution flags, Harvick was able to work his way through the field and end up back in front of the majority field. By the midway point of the race Harvick was inside the top 10 and managed to finish the day in seventh place.

Kyle Larson started the race in 23rd and spent the first half of the race in the 20s or worse. Once the crossed flags were displayed his team made aggressive pit calls to move him up in the running order. He worked his way to just outside of the top 10 by lap 60 and ran there until the final 10 laps. Through the final three restarts Larson took advantage of other drivers mixing it up and improved his position to a final result of fourth place.

Worth Noting

  • AJ Allmendinger scored his first career Sprint Cup victory Sunday at Watkins Glen International.
  • Allmendinger had made 212 career Cup starts before scoring his first win.
  • Allmendinger is the first graduate of NASCAR’s Road to Recovery to win a Cup series race.
  • Marcos Ambrose’s runner-up finish was his first of the season.
  • Ambrose has four career top-2 finishes, all taking place at Watkins Glen.
  • Kurt Busch’s third-place finish was his fifth podium of the season. Busch has five top-5 runs in 2014 and they all are top 3s.
  • Busch has two career top-3 finishes at The Glen.
  • Kyle Larson’s fourth-place finish made him the highest finishing rookie.
  • Among active drivers, Carl Edwards has the third highest average finish for his career on road courses as 11.25. He trails only Tony Stewart and Marcos Ambrose.
  • Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger are 22nd, 23rd and 24th respectively in the point standings but all are almost definitely making the Chase.

What’s the Points?

Points don’t matter as much as wins. The 12 race winners are listed below, along with the four drivers who would make the Chase on points at this juncture of the season.

Winners:

Daytona Pocono and Pocono (2) – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Phoenix and Darlington – Kevin Harvick
Las Vegas, Kentucky and New Hampshire – Brad Keselowski
Bristol and Sonoma – Carl Edwards
California – Kyle Busch
Martinsville – Kurt Busch
Texas and Richmond – Joey Logano
Talladega – Denny Hamlin
Kansas and Indianapolis– Jeff Gordon
Charlotte, Dover and Michigan – Jimmie Johnson
Daytona (2) – Aric Almirola
Watkins Glen – AJ Allmendinger

Drivers making the Chase on points who do not have wins:

3) Matt Kenseth
9) Ryan Newman
10) Kyle Larson
11) Clint Bowyer

There are 12 race winners with four races to go before the Chase cutoff at Richmond. They are all 191 points ahead of David Gilliland in 31st position. So provided AJ Allmendinger earns two points over the next four races, and there aren’t four new winners (on top of the point leader ending up winless) all 12 winners are now locked in to the Chase.

Overall rating (On a scale of 1-6, where 1 is a stinker and six is the finest of brews and a instant classic)

We’ll give this one four frosty Seneca Lodge Lagers. Road courses are the new short tracks. No cars left Watkins Glen without sheet metal damage and Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger leaned on each other heavily over the final few laps to decide the winner. Pit strategies came into play, there were two red flag periods and six cautions that slowed the competition. In the end, the racing wasn’t mind blowing but the suspense was palpable and the finish was memorable with a first time winner from a single car team.

What’s Next?

The series heads back to the Irish Hills of Michigan for round two at Michigan International Speedway. Sunday the 17th, coverage begins at 1:00 PM. It can be viewed on ESPN, while also heard on MRN and NASCAR Sirius XM Radio.

About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Sprint Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Thursday with Tech Talk. Mike works as track announcer for Millbridge Speedway and East Lincoln Speedway, local bullrings based outside of Charlotte, and pops up everywhere from Athlon Sports to SIRIUS XM Radio.

27 comments

  1. Also saw,the cars spinning at the rear of the field as they took the checker. Was never mentioned – and still don;t know who was involved or what happened!!

  2. Best race of the year; make that in the last few years! I think what added to the excitement was that the two that were battling for the lead weren’t your usual suspects. It was great to see two guys going door-to-door for the last laps while both being respectful of one another verses one of them just dumping the other. Overall I think the race coverage was far better than we’ve seen in past races. I think the only thing that bothered me, (slightly), was that once again there is someone in the booth that has a vested interest in one of the race teams in the race. That being said even Daugherty was pretty low key and composed right up until the end which is pretty darn refreshing compared to the Waltrip brothers.

    Like others have commented I’m getting frustrated at hearing various sports outlets analyze the Tony Stewart incident without having a clue as to racing. Lets leave it to the racing officials and authorities to sort out.

  3. Normally I read the articles from the frontstretch.. But after reading this one I won’t make the same mistake again.. The Stewart incident was a tragic accident and that’s it.. AJ was one of the fastest cars all weekend and everybody agreed even before the race that it was going to be a 2 horse race between AJ and Ambrose.. In the end AJ wanted it more and he earned it!! Get it straight or stop writing!!!

  4. Finally, a race worth watching. How can nascar duplicate the action in another race.
    As far as Stewart , I don’t know what goes through his mind. Sure he likes to race sprints
    they are my favorite form of racing BUT he’s racing these week end racers with little experience
    and any altercation will be blown out of proportion just because Stewart is a big dog racer.
    So sad but Stewart has raced with sprint pros or semi pros and needs to race with people
    that are more experienced. A allround bad deal, now sprint cars also have a black mark
    that will effect sponsors and others.

  5. Great race. Funny how a Nascar writer is calling out the other media for Tony Stewart coverage. Nascar writers overall are very biased in their “reporting”. Their personal feelings for a particular driver becomes “fact”. I and others were actually offended at the coverage of the incident on the pre-race show. “Poor Tony” seemed to be the theme. Well, our prayers are with the Ward family.

  6. The only reason this was a great race was because the Hendrick cars rad problems paving the way for some great road race drivers to show their talent. Any time you get the high dollar teams out of contention you WILL have a GREAT race!

  7. wow i forgot to mention….princess sparkle pony had a top 25 finish. ricky had top 20 finish.

  8. You kind of make it sound like AJ was only a factor due to strategy. He got the lead due to strategy but even before the cautions he was in the top 4 the entire race….not to mention he had to pass Ambrose BACK for the lead twice…Strategy can get you up there, but AJ flat out beat Ambrose at the end, not strategy.

  9. I think it’s been years since NASCAR threw a local caution at a road course.

    • I was watching a replay of the ’89 Bud at The Glen. On the next to the last lap, Geoff Bodine blew a tire down the back stretch and pierce the fence in turn 5 (prior to the bus stop). Nascar let the leaders take the white flag, then threw a local caution on that end of the track. Different rules back then, but no full course caution for a major incident. With today’s technology and the lack of gravel traps, local cautions should be the norm on minor incidents.

  10. i thought this post/article was supposed to be about the race? If I wanted to read about the Stewart/Ward sensationalized tragedy, I’d have gone elsewhere.
    I rather enjoyed it (the race) as the last couple of laps demonstrated the kind of competition that I want to watch. Where in a nutshell, the race comes down to the drivers and not who has the most money and the best engineering team to develop an “aero-car.” After the drudgery that nascar has become I’d award this race a 24 pack of good old grass roots PBR.

    • Really, how could anyone recap this weekend’s race without talking about Stewart’s issues?
      Maybe we can quibble over the amount of space devoted to it but a large part of the weekend coverage centered on Stewart.

    • Disappointed …The issues Tony is dealing with personally are enough & reporters trying to “get the Scoop” would be a sadness that just isn’t required here or ant where ( I hope) … Mike your comments as far as the tragedy go’s are ( in my opinion) are not required & I am disappointed …Would advise folks just let the process’s work to decide whats right but slanted opinions & emotions aren’t going to help much….Hearts out to the Familys/ Freinds hurtin..

  11. Add me to the list of viewers who really enjoyed the race. Budsudz already detailed why the race was so exciting and I don’t have anything to add except that I like the ‘Dinger and it was great to see him get a win. It’s also nice to see a single car team win a race once in a while.

  12. I only was able to tune in during the first red flag, but what I saw was still some of the best racing of the year. Allmendinger and Ambrose put on a show to muscle their way to the front for the last 30 laps, and then their battle in the final laps was absolutely incredible. We may not get a better moment all year than those two cars running side-by-side through the esses. A great finish and an ecstatic, underdog, first-time winner for a single-car team was the best possible salve after Kevin Ward’s death.

    I’m kind of glad this isn’t being brought up, but to me it seems like Allmendinger jumped the restart after the Josh Wise caution, before JJ’s spin and crash. If I’m not mistaken, the restart zone is marked by a set of cones in the catch fence, and Allmendinger definitely started accelerating before the cones. I’m glad it wasn’t called, because it would have spoiled a great finish and underdog story.

  13. I like road courses and I was very happy that Gordon was on the pole and had a good car – until the electronic gremlin came out and screwed up what could have been a really good day on track.

    Overall it was an entertaining race with lots of action – I was sorry about the accidents that caused the red flags but was very glad that no one was injured in them. I’m not a fan of AJ’s or Ambrose but they certainly did put on a great race at the end.

    I feel sad for the family of the racer after the Tony Stewart incident. You are right about the potential ramifications for Stewart beyond the fact that he has to live with the result of an accident which resulted in a death. Difficult days and weeks ahead for all involved.

  14. I’m thinking the best race of the season. Lot’s of spirited competition as there should be. ESPeeN
    showed too much of the in-car shots of the drivers. We GET it. The clutch, shift, brake really gets
    old, as does looking over the driver’s shoulder or up into his face. The racing is going on outside the
    car. The finish, as it was Saturday, showed the winning car, the crew, and burnout; when it
    should have stayed on the other competitors crossing the finish line. I hope NBC chooses to change the format next year and actually show what the trackside fans would be watching.

    • There were cars spinning at the end. You could see it in the background, when AJ crossed the line, but apparently that wasn’t as important as watching the team of the winner hug each other, just like every other week. It took them about 5 minutes before they had a replay of Hamlin’s incident and never found out what triggered it. Also, we never found out how JJ spun either. Maybe I missed it and they did when I was not watching, but I would say it was pretty piss poor coverage by ESPN. Not that I expected much more given they are done at the end of the year.

      Boy, this tragic incident with Stewart is prime for the lamestream media to sensationalize, isn’t it? And they took full advantage on Monday. Nothing gets people to click on your article more than implying in the title that Stewart purposely killed the guy. It borders on pathetic. But that’s what are media has been reduced to nowadays. Sensationalist headlines even if their accuracy is a little fuzzy.

  15. I was at the race. Very good, especially at the end. Though, I have to say being in the stands, those red flags were excruciating. Great to see Allmendinger win. Sucks that Gordon had trouble, he appeared to have the best car again and was catching Ambrose when electrical died. Sadly, though you could tell the Tony Stewart situation was hanging over the event.

    • I was at the Toronto IndyCar race…talk about excruiating..plus it was raining.

      At least with the red flag yesterday you knew what was going on..you had NO clue what was going on in Toronto and 5 hours later they tell everyone to go home.

  16. Definitely 5 cans (and possibly 6)—

    This race:
    –Actually kept my attention all the way through, including through two red flags (I did leave the TV, but kept pace with the race)
    –Featured strategy, but the outcome was not affected by fueling
    –Had two of the three best cars battling for the win
    –Had actual attrition (something that made the 80′s and 90′s racing great
    –Had actual tire wear/handling determine the outcome (Ambrose used up his equipment, allowing Almendinger to out race him
    –Was the rare example of The Chase making the racing better. Dinger and Ambrose would have raced hard for the win regardless, but the playoff berth added additional intensity to the racing. If this could actually be carried over to Michigan, Bristol (might bring back the old-style slugfest), Atlanta (a place with a history of close finishes, and Richmond (short track excitement), then you may see Brian backing into a decent idea for once. (I don’t expect this, but it was there for the Glen)
    –The racing for third place between Busch and Edwards was almost as good as the race for the lead

    • I agreed with your review of the race ! Sorry Bout the bid accidents but got to see lots of for real racing —–which I really did enjoy !!!

  17. really didn’t watch much of the race. after the morning headlines didn’t have stomach for racing. saw newman and mcdowell’s horrible wrecks and the hour plus red flag. flipped back over to espn at 4:30 and saw it wasn’t over, so kept it on. end was interesting watching two driver fight for the lead who wanted to win……wreckers or checkers deal. they both raced each other clean and respected each other at the end.

    congrats to allemdinger, he’s overcome his demons and have moved on. great to see penske and childress in v/lane congratulating aj. that was class.

  18. I’ll give that race 5 cold ones. The road races have become more interesting than most of the rest of the schedule.
    I would have loved to seen what Gordon could have done if he wouldn’t have had mechanical issues. Watkins Glen has not been kind to Jeff in the last decade. Before the weekend started I was just hoping he could break the streak and maybe get a top 5 but it didn’t work out that way.
    Not a fan of Allmendinger but he did a good job of holding onto the lead for a win.

    Not much else to say about the race as it was pretty much overshadowed by the Tony Stewart incident which, I suspect, will be overshadowing a lot of events for the next several weeks.