Names are remade here.
For AJ Allmendinger, that renaissance with Kaulig Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series has come full circle at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
It looked like his time as a full-time driver had come to a close by 2019 when Allmendinger agreed to join the team in a part-time capacity around his broadcasting duties with NBC Sports. It was just a five-race, low pressure agreement for the still 37-year-old to keep his skills sharp, while remaining current within a discipline he was covering behind the microphone.
What was supposed to be fun started to feel like a burden that summer weekend at Mid-Ohio.
Lexington is the home track for team owner Matt Kaulig and Allmendinger found himself surrounded by hundreds of employees and team partners, who all surely expected him to be ‘Dinger the Road Course Ringer,’ destined to take them to Victory Lane.
There was one legitimate problem, however.
As good as Allmendinger remained on road courses at this point in his career, he wasn’t driving a winning car that weekend but nevertheless felt pressured to somehow will it into existence. Team president Chris Rice took the edge off with a conversation that now serves as the seminal moment of his tenure at Kaulig Racing.
“This is where I fell in love with this team because we had a terrible practice and I thought, ‘oh my God, here we go again.’ I have to perform a miracle and make it happen.
“Chris pulled me aside and said ‘relax, we’re not going to win and it’s okay.’ He told me we didn’t have a winning car so just give it all I had, and that would be enough. And like, oh my god, seriously, it took all the weight off my shoulders. I finished third and I was thrilled with it.”
He went on to win at the Charlotte Roval later that year, added two more trophies last season and was offered a full-time opportunity in 2021. This agreement came with the caveat that Allmendinger never lets the pressure exceed the pleasure, even should things turn sour, not that this appears likely this season.
Allmendinger has already won twice in 13 starts and is second in the championship standings. He’s also made two Cup Series road course appearances with the team at Daytona and Circuit of the Americas with finishes of seventh and fifth.
Full circle, back in Lexington, Allmendinger took a no-win scenario and actually willed it into existence this time. He was ‘Dinger the Road Course Ringer.’ He was trapped at the tail-end of the lead lap due to a pit road penalty with 24 laps left and had driven inside the top-five when a caution came out with seven to go.
Allmendinger muscled his way back into the lead on the ensuing restart and never looked back.
“I love this team because they (have) my back,” Allmendinger said. “I got their back. Like when we had the pit road mistake, sure, I was mad, and I let it be known that I was mad.
“But I calmed down and said, ‘we win and lose as a team.’ As we went back green, I just wanted to do my part on the race track to make up for it. I sometimes mess up on the track and they make up for it in the pits. It’s the same deal.”
Allmendinger looks absolutely rejuvenated by Kaulig Racing and at 39-years-old is still arguably in the prime of his career. Maybe it should be a championship or bust season for Allmendinger, but that’s against the spirit of everything they’ve built.
Regardless of how this season plays out, Kaulig says Allmendinger has a long-term home within his organization and within the family they’ve built together alongside Rice.
When Allmendinger took the lead, and teammate Justin Haley emerged behind him en route to a 1-2 organizational finish, Rice told his veteran driver, ‘Your son is behind you, running 1-2.’
“We hit it off really quick,” Haley says. “He gave me a hard time at first, but just brotherly love stuff. We’ve raced so much against each other but never had any issues on the track.
“He looks out for me and I look out for me.”
Sense a theme here?
“Me and AJ have always had something pretty special,” Haley said. “We talk a good bit away from the track because we have similar mindsets and viewpoints. He’s a great friend.”
This is surely the version of Allmendinger that Team Penske, Red Bull Racing or JTG Daugherty Racing each wanted to unlock but couldn’t for whatever reason — be it competitively or spiritually.
But given how Allmendinger has performed this season, and with a Cup Series schedule that emphasizes road courses with a car that is essentially a GT3-Supercar hybrid, it’s easy to dream on one more highest-level shot for The Dinger.
“I’ll make it simple for you,” Allmendinger said after Kaulig deflected questions about their Cup plans for next season. “There’s a lot going on with Kaulig Racing and its growth. I love being a part of it. I’ve told Matt and Chris that I just want to be a part of it, in any capacity.”
That feeling is reciprocal, with Kaulig conceding that Allmendinger will have a shot at the road courses and superspeedway events in a one-off — even if it’s not in the full-time championship driver’s car.
And if Allmendinger keeps performing at this level, making it a no-brainer that he’s still amongst the elite at his profession, how does that guy not race on Sundays next year?
That’s especially true given everything we know about the Next-Gen Car.
“I’m watching it and I heard what Kurt and Martin said about driving it at the Roval and how much fun they had,” Allmendinger said. “At the same point, it’s the Cup Series and everyone is really good.
“So, it’s not like I’m going to jump in and have this obvious advantage over the next guy because I’ve run GT cars a lot. Everyone is going to have to adjust to that car, and get a feeling for how it drives, and do things as an organization to make sure the cars are fast.
“But at the end of the day, it really goes back to the fact that I believe in this organization. I believe in what Matt and Chris and everyone here allows us to do. No joke, we don’t talk about contracts. I just want to be a part of whatever it is we’re doing. It’s so much fun and I’m proud of it. I thoroughly enjoy this team.”
Kaulig Racing has rebuilt AJ Allmendinger.
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