By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AUSTIN, Texas – The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Once again, the old adage rang true at the end of a NASCAR Cup Series race as Ross Chastain scored his first career win at NASCAR’s highest level on Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas while AJ Allmendinger was left to wonder what if after getting spun on the last lap of the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix.
A day before Sunday’s main event, Chastain and Allmendinger went to battle in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race, with Allmendinger winning out after Chastain was spun out near the front of the field late in the race.
24 hours later they were at it again.
After leading the most laps on the day, the two drivers found themselves at the front of the field with the checkered flag in sight. With Chastain seeking his first Cup win and Allmendinger looking to sweep the weekend, the gloves were going to come off – and they did.
As the race was pushed to overtime with Tyler Reddick ahead of both Chastain and Allmendinger, it was anyone’s guess on who would come out the other side as the victor.
By the time the field got around to the esses, Chastain had fought his way through a gaggle of cars including Reddick, Allmendinger, and Alex Bowman to take over the lead, which he was able to hold for the remainder of the penultimate lap, taking the white flag with nearly a second lead over Allmendinger.
Chastain would continue to hold the top spot until reaching Turn 15, when Allmendinger was able to get underneath him and won the drag race through the Turn 16, 17, 18 complex. However, the two-man race, turned into a three-man race when Bowman found himself in the mix.
Heading into Turn 19, it all came to a head.
Bowman entered the turn on the outside, with Allmendinger underneath and Chastain directly behind Allmendinger. Contact from Chastain would send Allmendinger spinning off track, ending his shot at the weekend sweep, while Chastain was able to hold off Bowman the rest of the way to cross the line first and score the win.
“It’s insane,” Chastain said. “To go up against some of the best with AJ, I mean, I know he is going to be upset with me, but we raced hard, both of us, and he owes me one.
“But when it comes to a Cup win, man, I can’t let that go down without a fight. So, Justin Marks, Trackhouse, AdventHealth, the Moose. A million Moose members, they better be celebrating tonight all across the country and the world.”
After celebrating with a burnout, Chastain exited his car, took hold of a watermelon and as has become tradition, hoisted it over his head and smashed it on the track in front of a raucous crowd in the Texas state capitol.
“It’s never tasted sweeter,” Chastain said. “I got to tell you I don’t know. I don’t know how we got back by. I was so worried about AJ on the second-to-last restart that I let Tyler drive right by both of us.
“And AJ is so good. I’ve learned so much from him. And it was like how do you go beat the guy? He taught me so much. I’ve learned so much from so many people from 417 Speedway back home with my dad.
“I was thinking about on those late restarts, my dad used to make me race on old tires, and back then I was not going to win. It was in my head before I even started. It crossed my mind, like, We’re not going to win, we’re on old tires, but I couldn’t think that way. I thought neutral.
“Chevrolet, everything they do for me gave me the tools to try to go execute and we did it.
“Phil Surgen, man. He is so good. People don’t know how good this group is. I can’t believe Justin Marks hired me to drive this car.”
Meanwhile, the spin off Chastain’s bumper relegated Allmendinger to 33rd in the final rundown, a massive letdown for Allmendinger and his Kaulig Racing team, who was a quarter of a mile away from being able to add another Cup series trophy to the team’s resume.
“At the end of the day, we all have to look ourselves in the mirror If you are okay with it, you’re okay with it. Each person is different,” Allmendinger said.
“More than anything, proud of Kaulig Racing. Action Industry Chevy was so fast. If we had a long run, nobody was going to touch us.
“Everybody at Kaulig Racing, all the men and women, it’s just a lot of sleepless nights for them right now trying to just get these cars to the next race. So, I was doing everything I could do to try to sweep the weekend for them. We were that close.
“So, like I said, at the end of the day each person has to make the move that they’re comfortable with, and that’s fine. So we’ll — at the end of the day it’s — we know we had a shot to win the race. It’s tough to win a Cup race, so when you put yourself in a position to legitimately run up front all day and have a shot to win it, it’s a pretty great day. Unfortunately, just we needed about two more corners.”