Focused on fun: AJ Allmendinger savors opportunity, downplays Xfinity title pressure

·7 min read

AJ Allmendinger arguably won the biggest race of his career this past weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, the NASCAR Cup Series’ debut on the 14-turn layout.

Even after the triumph, Allmendinger‘s primary focus was still on capturing the Xfinity Series championship with Kaulig Racing.

During the course of his NASCAR career, Allmendinger has been known to be cordial with any team he‘s part of, yet vocal when he’s not pleased with his race cars. There was too much of the latter at JTG Daugherty Racing, and it took the enjoyment out of racing for the California native. Ultimately, his displeasure led to his departure from the team after the 2018 Cup season.

With no full-time seats open, Allmendinger waited … and waited. In the meantime, he took up a job as an analyst for NASCAR on NBC.

That was until Matt Kaulig, owner of Kaulig Racing, and team president Chris Rice cold-called the veteran driver, asking if he would be open to running a partial Xfinity schedule in 2019 to improve the young organization, particularly on road courses.

Allmendinger agreed.

Allmendinger‘s famous smile reappeared, with near-instant success at Kaulig Racing. He crossed the finish line inside the top three in his first two starts, only to be disqualified (Daytona and Watkins Glen), then won in his fifth race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Allmendinger enjoyed racing again. With two more wins, including his first on an oval in 2020, both sides came to an agreement to run the full 2021 Xfinity Series schedule. Nearly two-thirds of the way through the season, the 39-year-old Allmendinger is still relishing his return to full-time NASCAR competition.

“I put so much pressure on myself that there‘s always going to be that element of, ‘I‘m not having a lot of fun right now‘ because I show up to these weekends and I expect greatness out of myself,” Allmendinger told NASCAR.com a few weeks ago. “I want to win every race. I want to be up front. I want to walk into the shop and feel like a badass because I‘m bringing something to the team.

“That‘s the pressure I put on myself. I joke around, but it‘s serious. There are times where it‘s not ‘fun‘ because I do that to myself. But the difference is, you‘ve seen us joking around and what you see with us giving each other crap and going back and forth, that‘s real. That‘s part of the reason I wanted to be full time because I had that fun on a part-time basis. But then, I would go three or four races without racing — I would go to the shop, but I want to be at the track. I wanted that every weekend.”

Through the opening 21 races of the season, Allmendinger is one of just five full-time Xfinity drivers who have won a race. In early March at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the No. 16 Chevrolet crossed the finish line first. Three months later at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Allmendinger charged through the field after a late pit-road penalty, securing his second checkered flag of the season.

RELATED: Michigan, Gateway weekend schedule | Xfinity Series standings

Currently, Allmendinger sits second in the championship standings, 82 points below Austin Cindric, who has five victories — including a big one at Indy the day before Allmendinger’s Cup win.

Stacy Revere | Getty Images
Stacy Revere | Getty Images

“You always want more, and I do feel we‘ve given away a couple of wins,” Allmendinger said. “I feel like in every race, we could have been in the top five. There‘s probably a couple of top fives we got where we probably should have had a seventh or eighth, but we got a top five out of them. And the ones where we didn‘t get top fives, whether it‘s mechanical, strategy calls, out of tires, etc., I would say we could have been inside the top seven every race this year.”

Rice said he believes the No. 16 team is having a “building year.” But he also knows Allmendinger is inexperienced when it comes to competing in the Xfinity Series. Still, it’s worth noting that Allmendinger hasn’t competed in an Xfinity Series car at three of the final 12 tracks on the schedule (Michigan, Richmond and Kansas), and just once competed at Phoenix, finishing fifth.

“I think the season has gone OK, but I think we can be a lot better,” Rice says. “A lot of these places AJ is going to for the first time in an Xfinity car, so we‘re building on notes. But with no practice and no qualifying, we have to sometimes come back and rebuild on what we built there.”

Jason Trinchere, who has been an engineer in all three national touring series and is in his first year as a NASCAR crew chief, agrees it‘s been a solid season. Knowing that he has a wheelman in the driver‘s seat doesn‘t hurt, either.

“For me, it was a lifetime worth of work for a lifetime opportunity,” he said. “We all know AJ is going to be a contender for each race, so I couldn‘t have a better opportunity.”

Rice added that Allmendinger has been a key contributor to the team because he helps lead its driver core of Justin Haley, Jeb Burton and Kaz Grala. At the same time, Kaulig puts no pressure on Allmendinger, which has helped propel him to success.

“We told him we want to win trophies, but at the same time, we want to have fun with it,” Rice said. “I think he knows that and sees we have his back no matter how good or bad he runs. That makes for a big deal.”

With five races remaining in the regular season, it’ll be a tough hill to climb making up 82 points on Cindric to win the regular season championship. Still, second place is awarded 10 playoff points, which could go a long way toward potentially making it to Phoenix Raceway as part of the Championship 4.

MORE: 2021 Xfinity Series winners

Across the board, Allmendinger says he feels the No. 16 team is on par with Cindric‘s No. 22 team on a weekly basis. They’ve been 1-2 in the championship standings since Mid-Ohio, nine races ago. So does that make the Nos. 16 and 22 the favorites for the title?

“I don‘t think so,” Rice said. “I think you‘re going to have some sleepers like Justin Allgaier. Justin Allgaier is good; he‘s great at some of those race tracks in the playoffs. Noah Gragson is really aggressive and a guy you have to keep your eye on. Daniel Hemric. I don‘t think there are any favorites, but I think there are three or four guys that can really jump up in there and push us, in terms of AJ Allmendinger, Justin Haley and Jeb Burton out of the way, as well as the (No.) 22 car.”

Over the last seven races (the same amount as the playoffs), the No. 16 team has scored eight more points than the No. 22 team. Because of that, Trinchere has his team slotted as a co-favorite to win the championship. “If we‘re keeping pace with them,” Trinchere says, “I know come playoff time we can excel when we make that push.”

And though Allmendinger has been around NASCAR for a decade and a half, he’s not letting his thoughts get caught up with the potential of winning a championship. There’s too much of the season left.

“With the way the championship format is, one bad race and you could be done,” he said. “Obviously, it comes down to the last race of the season. If we‘re lucky enough to be in the final four in Phoenix, then maybe you start letting your brain be like, ‘OK, it would be big to win a championship.‘ But we have so much work, so much progress to make to even worry about that, that I don‘t think ahead and allow it to enter my mind.”