Top Dog: AJ Allmendinger
Based on the performance of the Next Gen car at flat tracks this season, there were definitely some unknowns heading into the Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July 17). Even several drivers in interviews during and after practice could not give a straightforward prediction about what to anticipate at New England’s Magic Mile.
For the Cup Series underdogs, many came up empty in the lobster fishing department. Several dark horses were affected by crashes and other drivers’ issues throughout the event. The one underdog that appeared to have the most stability during the race was AJ Allmendinger, who has increased his versatility since jumping back into Cup part-time with Kaulig Racing.
Allmendinger’s consistency placed him at the top of the underdog list with a 16th-place result, one lap down, proving how tumultuous the race was for underdogs.
The veteran driver started from the 20th position, working his way up to 15th by the end of the stage. That stability and consistency I mentioned was no joke, as Allmendinger finished stage two in the same spot: 15th.
The No. 16 Gold Fish Casino Slots Chevrolet may not have been a top-10 presence, but you could still see Allmendinger fighting the likes of Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and other top drivers for position. His persistent, locked-in spot ranged from 14th to 17th for most of the final stage, and despite trouble for several other drivers, the 40-year-old carried the underdog banner in 16th.
Allmendinger has really become the handyman to throw in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet this season. His results this year have been more impressive, in some ways, than his full-time Cup days. The Loudon race was the Californian’s 10th Cup appearance of the season. After a best finish of 20th in his first five starts, though he was a couple of turns away from winning Circuit of the Americas, Allmendinger has finished no worse than 19th in his most recent five Cup events. That includes two top 10s to his credit.
Unless the full-time Xfinity Series competitor has a change of heart, we will likely never see Allmendinger in a Cup car full-time again. But in his current role, the quick adaptation to the Next Gen car and the veteran leadership he brings to Kaulig helps put that program in position to succeed.
A week after having another near miss at victory lane, Erik Jones tried his best to keep the fire lit heading to New Hampshire. Unfortunately, it dwindled to a spark after 301 circuits. Jones was not much of a factor in the event, shuffling between both tight and loose handling conditions. The No. 43 made its way into the top 15 at one point but had to settle for a 19th-place finish, one lap off the pace.
It is a solid top 20 that gives Jones five such showings in the past seven races. But for a team that is hungry for a playoff spot and a driver with an uncertain future, it is go big or go home right now.
Justin Haley’s 20th-place finish is more impressive than the worth it will likely be given. Haley was at the center of drama right from the beginning of the race, as Ty Dillon slid up into him before setting off a big crash on lap 5. That was only the beginning for Haley, as the Kaulig driver reported to his team in stage one that he was experiencing rear brake issues. Fortunately, the team was able to adjust accordingly and got Haley back in the hunt to back up last week’s top 10 with a top 20.
The central theme of the underdog performance at New Hampshire? One word: chaos. As mentioned above, early on Dillon lost control of his No. 42 Allegiant Chevrolet in turn 2. After sliding into Haley, Dillon overcorrected, a common action with the rack and pinion steering of this car. Dillon slid right into the path of Alex Bowman, ending both drivers’ days as well as both BJ McLeod’s and Josh Bilicki’s.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 17, 2022
After a fan-winning, muscle-flexing performance at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Corey LaJoie had an extra pep in his step. The speed in his No. 7 Built Energy Chevrolet also appeared to improve on the flat tracks at Loudon.
Unfortunately, any progress soon came to a screeching halt. LaJoie originally looked to have gotten loose and overcorrected his car on lap 89. However, the Spire Motorsports driver said that the rear end locked up when he shifted, potentially signaling an issue with the transaxle. The crash ended LaJoie’s day and also affected Michael McDowell, who was collected in the incident and finished 28th. That ended a streak of six straight top-20 finishes for McDowell.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the Magic Mile also produced noteworthy results. Brandon Brown used a late pit stop to charge through the field on fresh tires. Brown initially finished fifth, but the disqualifications of both Landon Cassill and Noah Gragson boosted him to third, matching his career-best finish on a non-superspeedway.
Positions eight through 10 carried some pleasant surprises, too. Kyle Weatherman earned Jesse Iwuji Motorsports its first top 10 as an organization with an eighth-place showing, his third top 10 in 73 career NXS starts. After failing to record a top 10 in his first 26 starts, Mason Massey earned his second career top 10 in his last nine starts, earning a ninth-place result.
Rounding out the top 10 was JD Motorsports’ Bayley Currey, who recorded his second top 10 in his 92nd start. How about some love for these underdogs?
Underdogs Sound Off
Erik Jones (19th): “We were just off a bit today. We were plowing early, made adjustments throughout the race to try to make our FOCUSfactor Chevy better and then we were too loose at the end. We’re still learning with these cars – it’s hard to predict how it will react sometimes and we just have to keep building our notebooks and build on each week. We’ll keep learning and refocus for next week at Pocono.”
Corey LaJoie (32nd): “It just got hung in between fourth and third gear on the downshift there. I had it happen earlier in the day when I wasn’t around anybody. I just thought I wasn’t pushing it into gear hard enough or whatever the case may have been. We were racing hard on the restart there underneath the No. 21 (Harrison Burton). I tried pushing it down to third and it just got hung between fourth and third, and it just locked both rear tires up so they weren’t turning.
“I hate that other guys were involved. We’ll have to take a look at it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It was a weird thing… the first thing we’ve had all year with the transaxle. It’s been a tough stretch. I feel bad for my No. 7 Spire Motorsports team. We were trying to pull off another good week from last weekend’s momentum. It wasn’t meant to be, but we’ll get them next week.”
Underdog Silly Season Scoop
This week was filled with shocking news, hurt feelings, and a great batch of the Silly Season presumptions NASCAR fans love. While the Tyler Reddick news was the headliner, Ty Dillon had news of his own this week. Dillon’s first season with Petty GMS Motorsports will also be his last, as the two parties mutually agreed to part ways following the 2022 season.
— Ty Dillon (@tydillon) July 15, 2022
The news is shocking in some ways but not in others. Dillon has been consistently outperformed by teammate Jones this season (Jones is 18th in the standings while Dillon sits 28th). However, Dillon has not necessarily had a terrible year. While he has been very quiet on track, leading just one lap, he has kept the car fairly clean in posting 10 top-20 finishes.
That is not bad for a guy who hadn’t had a full-time ride in over a year entering 2022. Unfortunately for him, Jones has impressed with near-wins and six top 10s. Add in a pool of intriguing prospects and it is purely an expected business decision on the Petty GMS side. Noah Gragson is reportedly the team’s top target to get the ride, with rumors that Corey LaJoie is in the mix as well.
For Dillon, fans have pointed to the No. 8 at Richard Childress Racing as a potential landing spot, given the fact Ty is the grandson of RCR owner Richard Childress. However, Dillon has proven that he wants to blaze his own path; plus, he would likely have to wait until 2024 for that to work out. Could the awkward, lame-duck scenario at RCR force Childress to ship Reddick to Petty GMS for 2023? It is possible but unlikely.
As for the No. 8 car, Dillon is not the overwhelming favorite for that ride, either. Jones still does not have a contract for next season, and while a return is in the works, he can start talking to other teams this week. RCR could very well be an option in this environment. You also have to add in Gragson, LaJoie and the rookie duo of RCR’s Xfinity program in Austin Hill and Sheldon Creed to the list.
Erik Jones says who drives the No. 42 Cup car doesn’t necessarily impact his decision on whether to return to Petty GMS Racing next season. He met with team owner Maury Gallagher earlier this week as they try to get a deal done. pic.twitter.com/1VBibM9kjg
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 16, 2022
Small Team Scheme of the Week
What is a great cure for beating the hot weather? Ice cream! Live Fast Motorsports brought My Mochi Ice Cream on for the race in Loudon, featuring a brightly-colored pink and purple scheme. Unfortunately, the heat of the race melted the No. 78 early, as the lap 5 crash ended his day.
Our team came ready to race the ✨magic mile✨ but an unavoidable collision with 3 other cars took @bjmcleod78 out early 😩
— Live Fast Motorsports (@teamlivefast) July 17, 2022
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.