LEXINGTON, Ohio — AJ Allmendinger led 73 of the 94 laps and survived a late challenge after a restart to win the inaugural NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
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.
The 31-year-old Allmendinger, rebounding after being suspended a year ago for failing a random drug test, took the lead for good on the 64th lap, then had to weather a late sprint when a car spun out just before his final lap on the twisting road course.
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 Ford comfortably ahead of McDowell by a couple of seconds, the car driven by Kenny Habul spun out on Turn 11. Out came the yellow flag, with Allmendinger and most of the other leaders having to conserve fuel to prevent running out before the re-start.
When the pace car finally pulled off, Allmendinger sped away to the lead and held it throughout the final lap to take the checkered flag.
Absolutely no one was surprised there were lots of caution flags, with 40 large, powerful cars racing around a layout with a variety of elevations and hairpin curves that is a maximum of 40-feet wide.
The first 18 laps were clean but then things started getting messy. Justin Allgaier — who would bounce back to briefly challenge for the lead later — found the sand off Turn 9 for the first yellow.
Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith were among the drivers who had their cars spun, either through contact, aggressive driving or in the heat of the race.
By then, however, with just 15 or so laps left, the top two had separated themselves, several seconds ahead of third-place Hornish. Almendinger held onto the lead — not pulling away but not losing any ground — as they made it a two-car race.
The late caution almost erased what had taken place for the previous 30 or so laps.
The victory served as a payback from Allmendinger to team owner Roger Penske, who stood by the driver throughout his suspension and filled out his schedule with drives.
Rounding out the top 10 were Sadler in sixth, Marcos Ambrose, Allgaier, Bayne and Jeremy Clements.
It was only the second Nationwide Series pole of McDowell’s career, following Road America in 2011.
The Sprint Cup driver, ninth at the 2013 Daytona 500, hadn’t finished better this year than a 22nd at Richmond. That was also the only other time in his four previous races that he had cracked the top 10 on the starting grid.
Two drivers raced at Mid-Ohio and also planned on being in the middle of the action at Sunday’s NASCAR Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Ambrose was set to start 26th in Brooklyn, Mich., with Austin Dillon set to start a notch behind him. Both were expecting to helicopter between the two tracks.
Dillon came into Mid-Ohio leading the Nationwide drivers’ standings but is now tied for third with Smith.
The race was contested under perfect conditions: no rain, light wind, temperatures around 80 and an overcast sky.
A dozen or more injured, ill or sick kids from the event’s namesake hospital in Columbus were represented in the paintwork on cars and some were introduced along with the drivers before the start.