LEXINGTON, Ohio (AP) — AJ Allmendinger was so close he could almost envision coasting through his final lap and capturing the checkered flag.
Then, elsewhere on the course, a car spun out and the subsequent yellow flag meant the pack would have to restart behind the pace car in a two-lap sprint to the finish.
But after leading 73 of the 94 laps, he survived that last, late challenge to win the inaugural NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
‘’In a way, I feel like I’m playing with house money because I never expected to be back here at this level,’’ said Allmendinger, making another major step back after his suspension a year ago for failing a random drug test. ‘’I’m just taking it all in and having fun with it.’’
Allmendinger improved his record to 2 for 2 this year in the Nationwide Series, adding a victory to the one he picked up for Penske Racing in his only previous start at Road America.
He credited his crew, his sponsors and particularly team owner Roger Penske, who stood by him in his darkest hours and gave him work.
‘’It’s Roger’s world and I’m living in it,’’ Allmendinger said. ‘’I’ll go back and I’ll celebrate this and enjoy it. And definitely take it all in as it’s happening. But I don’t let it dictate my life anymore, which I used to.’’
Pole-winner Michael McDowell was second, with native Ohioan Sam Hornish Jr. third, Max Papis fourth and Brian Vickers fifth. Hornish took over the season points lead, 13 points ahead of Elliott Sadler.
The race was plagued by spin-outs and fender benders.
The last one almost changed the outcome.
With everyone racing to the finish and Allmendinger’s Discount Tire Mustang comfortably ahead of McDowell by a couple of seconds, the car driven by Kenny Habul spun out on Turn 11. Out came the caution, with Allmendinger left to make one last stand.
Hornish made a run at the leaders almost immediately and also tried to skirt inside McDowell at the first turn. Allmendinger, who ended up winning by 1.165 seconds, was focused on holding on.
Rounding out the top 10 were Sadler in sixth, Marcos Ambrose, Allgaier, Bayne and Jeremy Clements.
Allmendinger remained humbled and excited.
He was touched by the kids from the event’s namesake hospital in Columbus, many facing struggles against disease, injuries and illness.