About 10 seconds from the finish line and with one turn to navigate at the tricky Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, AJ Allmendinger felt a tinge of road-course rage Saturday.
A caution about as late as one can come forced a green-white-checkered finish. It also wiped out Allmendinger’s nearly two-second lead.
With the field bunched up behind him, Allmendinger — as he had all afternoon — sped away from the pack to win the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ inaugural visit to Ohio in the Nationwide Children’s 200. Allmendinger beat runner-up Michael McDowell by 1.164 seconds and home-state favorite Sam Hornish Jr., who finished third and took over first place in the points standings.
As if the finish needed more drama, it got it anyway with teams wondering if they had enough fuel to get around the 13-turn, 2.258-mile track for two more laps. They did.
“I was sizing it up for two laps. It was all happening in front of me,” Allmendinger said of the trouble brewing prior to the caution with drivers making frenzied efforts to pick up additional positions. “It was late in the race and tires were gone, brakes were gone. I knew it was coming. … I could see it all funnelling up and getting tight.”
For his part — or so he says — Allmendinger took the late caution in stride.
“On the radio I think I said, ‘Darn it.’ … It was something like that, right?” Allmendinger asked his crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, with a sly smile.
“You tell it how you want, it’s your story,” Bullins responded, shaking his head.
For much of the race Allmendinger was the story. He led three times for 73 laps, both race highs, and clicked off the final 31 laps in first. The victory was his second Nationwide win in two starts this season, also winning at Road America. Combined with Brad Keselowski’s three wins and two by Joey Logano, the No. 22 Discount Tire Ford has now won eight of the last 16 Nationwide events for Penske Racing.
Mid-Ohio’s hosting of its first Nationwide race was also a success. One estimate put the crowd at 100,000 on the sprawling complex located about an hour northeast of Columbus.
McDowell certainly approved. He started on the pole but just didn’t have enough to keep up with Allmendinger, who also started on the front row.
“The Penske car has just been good,” McDowell said. “Not one thing in particular because I’ve been watching them too. It doesn’t take much. You’re talking about a tenth of a second a lap (to make a difference). They definitely have something figured out.”
Seven cautions slowed the action, which got a little chippy late. Kyle Larson and Max Papis traded paint on the final lap. Austin Dillon was knocked off the track and Kelly Owen also ran into trouble racing in the pack.
“There were opportunities to pass in places but they were high risk,” McDowell said. “This track, being as narrow as it is and with the elevation, you’re really putting yourself in a vulnerable position. If the guy you’re passing doesn’t give you a little bit of room it’s going to be a mess.”