Nationwide Series driver Regan Smith got a call Sunday morning asking if he could come to Watkins Glen to drive Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet when Stewart elected to sit out the race after his involvement in the death of a sprint car driver Saturday night at a New York dirt track.
Smith reached Concord Regional Airport in time to catch a plane ride with Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick.
With no practice in the car and little experience with Stewart’s car, Smith stayed out of trouble most of the race but got caught up in a four-race wreck on Lap 82 and finished 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,” Smith said. “I 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.
“These guys build fast race cars at Stewart-Haas and I was thankful to get in one. Definitely not under the circumstances.”
Kurt Busch was ready: Kurt Busch spent the final two laps watching and waiting to see if A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose would battle so hard that Busch could pounce for the victory.
As it turned out, Allmendinger won and Busch ended up third.
“Those two put on a good show,” Busch said. “I thought I was sitting in a good spot running third hoping that the two would wipe each other out just enough that we would drive our Chevy into Victory Lane.”
Earnhardt takes points lead: Road courses have never been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s strong suit, but his 11th-place finish was good enough to catapult into the Cup series points lead.
He holds a five-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who entered the race with the points lead but finished 34th.
“That last (pit) stop a couple of guys on new tires beat us. We had a good fast car, real good speed, just got caught out on that strategy there and didn’t finish in the top five,” Earnhardt said. “We had a good enough car, too.”
Observations• Regardless of whether Stewart competed after Saturday night’s tragedy, Stewart and NASCAR were going to take their fair share of hits in the mainstream media. And there would be legions of people ready to make a judgment on whether Stewart was at fault, regardless of any decision made by the investigating authorities. Stewart in the end elected not to race and it was the right decision – for everyone involved, including NASCAR, his fellow competitors and the family of the victim. Sunday was a bad day, but it was made just a little bit less bad by Stewart removing himself from the picture.
• Once again, drivers raised the issue of the safety accommodations at Watkins Glen International after two parts of its wall were torn down during a five-car wreck. Here is some unsolicited advice for NASCAR: Either put energy-absorbing SAFER barriers everywhere at every track or do a better job of explaining why they aren’t there.
• Allmendinger’s victory was a reminder that while NASCAR has what many think might be stringent or unyielding rules, when it comes to its substance-abuse program, it means what it says – it wants violators to get better, learn from their mistakes and return to racing.
Five key moments
1. Jeff Gordon leads the first 29 laps but loses power in his car and is forced to the garage for repairs on Lap 51.
2. A five-car wreck in Turn 5 tears two holes in the wall, requiring a 1-hour, 21-minute red flag for repairs.
3. Allmendinger takes the lead for the first time on Lap 61, making his way around Carl Edwards.
4. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose go toe-to-toe on a restart on Lap 86 with Ambrose briefly taking the lead before Allmendinger gets back around just before the caution flag waved.
5. Ambrose and Allmendinger bang fenders on a restart with two laps remaining, but Allmendinger remains out front to capture his first series victory.