Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: AJ Allmendinger’s Title Hopes Take Big Hit in Sin City

Noah Gragson may have stolen the show with four straight NASCAR Xfinity Series wins in September, but AJ Allmendinger went out and reminded everyone why he was the 2022 regular season champion in the first half of October.

He broke through with his first superspeedway win via a last-lap pass at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 1, and he followed it up with his fourth win in as many Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL starts on Oct. 8 to close out the Round of 12. At that point, Allmendinger had five wins, top-10 finishes in 26 of the 29 races and an average finish of 5.9.

On Friday night (Oct. 14), Allmendinger continued his hot streak with his fifth pole of the season for Saturday’s (Oct. 15) Alsco Uniforms 302 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. With a 22-point advantage over the playoff cut line and a front row starting spot to begin the Round of 8, everything was going Allmendinger’s way.

Until it wasn’t. Trouble began early in the afternoon for the No. 16 team, as Allmendinger was passed by Gragson after leading the first six laps. Allmendinger soon began to backslide with an ill-handling car, and he dropped to seventh by the end of stage one. The Kaulig Racing team had no answers for stage two either, as Allmendinger only reached 10th to grab the final stage point.

Despite the early struggles after entering the day with high expectations, Allmendinger’s day was far from over. Both stage one and stage two ran caution free, so there was little time for Allmendinger and the No. 16 team to make adjustments to the car or gain positions on restarts. As lap 90 marked the final guaranteed caution, it was crucial for the team to make the right adjustments for the final stage.

Indeed, things started to turn in the right direction. Allmendinger began climbing his way up through the top 10 and found himself just outside the top five with 60 laps remaining; the No. 16 team then pulled its weight during a round of green-flag pit stops in the middle of the stage.

The pivotal moment in the race came on lap 161, as the third caution and the first for an incident was brought out after Brandon Jones spun in turn 1.

Well, almost spun. Onboard replays showed that while the No. 19 car got sideways in the corner, the caution was waved even after he made a great save to keep his car going in the right direction. With mounting criticism toward race control in the last month or so, the caution for Jones marked another head-scratching decision in a season that has been chock-full of them.

But the caution came out, regardless of how it happened. All the frontrunners used the opportunity to come down pit road, and the No. 16 crew was flawless once again. Almost. More on that later.

Allmendinger lined up third for the lap 167 restart, which proved to be the final restart of the race. In front of him was teammate Landon Cassill, the only car on the lead lap that elected not to pit under the caution.

The race resumed with Gragson to the outside of Cassill. Gragson was the dominant car of the day, as he led 87 of the first 167 laps in an effort to score his first win at his home track. That got derailed out of turn 4, however, as a slight tap from Allmendinger caused Cassill to move up to the racetrack and right in front of Gragson. Both cars had to check up, and by the time the dust settled, Gragson was back to sixth while Cassill had fallen to 10th.

Allmendinger made it through the overcrowded turn 4 to lead lap 168, the first time he had led since lap 6. Further back, defending race winner Josh Berry and his JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier sliced their way through the field to take over second and third. Berry had a full head of steam out of turn 4 on the following lap, bouncing off the turn 4 wall after Allmendinger ran him high. The contact was no problem for Berry, however, as he took the lead from Allmendinger in turn 1 and set sail for the remaining 34 laps.

See also
Xfinity Breakdown: Josh Berry Claims Spot in Championship 4, AJ Allmendinger Suffers Setback

Similar to the start of the race, Allmendinger soon began backpedaling and found himself in fourth. With just five stage points acquired earlier in the afternoon, Allmendinger found himself clinging to a one-point advantage over Allgaier in the playoff cut line. It didn’t help that Berry — who entered the day below the cut line — was in the lead and poised to clinch a playoff spot. Berry’s lead effectively moved Allmendinger from third to fourth in points, but troubles had only just begun.

Remember the almost-perfect pit stop? Shortly after the stop, Allmendinger radioed the crew and asked if they got all the lug nuts tight. The crew confirmed this, and Allmendinger carried on. But that didn’t last forever, as Allmendinger continued to have concerns about a loose wheel. The worry eventually became overwhelming, and Allmendinger surrendered fourth place to take right-side tires on pit road.

Pitting proved to be the right call, as both the right front and rear tires were loose. But the damage was done, and Allmendinger now found himself outside the top 20 and trapped a lap down. If he had any hope of a comeback, a caution would have to come out as soon as possible.

It never came. The rest of the race was run under green, and Allmendinger concluded a disappointing afternoon with a 22nd-place finish, two laps off the pace.

“It’s just the way it goes, everyone’s trying hard,” Allmendinger told NBC. “It’s part of the nature; last money pit stop, and you’re trying to get it all. Just wish I was wrong sometimes when I thought [the lugnuts] were loose.

“I thought it might be a struggle, it was a really big struggle that first run. [Crew chief] Bruce [Schlicker] and the guys kept making small adjustments to make it better, thought we were going to make an OK day out of it. It’s tough when you have mistakes like that, but we win and lose as a team; it’s frustrating. Just got to move on.”

The 22nd wasn’t just Allmendinger’s worst finish of the playoffs, it was his worst finish of the entire season. The fact that it took Allmendinger 30 races to record a finish outside the top 20 speaks to how consistent the team has been this year, but that finish happened to come at the worst possible time.

To add insult to injury, Berry won the race and leapfrogged Allmendinger in points. Allmendinger entered the race 22 points above the cut, but combined with his poor finish, his minimal stage points and Berry’s win, the No. 16 team left Sin City 16 points below the cut. 2022 has been a season of Allmendinger taking charge, and for the first time all year, he finds himself on the outside looking in.

A 16-point deficit is far from a death sentence. But the three drivers above the cut (Gragson, Ty Gibbs and Allgaier) have combined to win 15 of the 30 races this year. Unless someone has an early exit in the next two races, it will be a tall order for Allmendinger to make up that ground.

Of course, he could win. Allmendinger is winless at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Martinsville Speedway in his Xfinity career, but he hasn’t been devoid of success at them. He led 45 laps and had an average running position of fifth in the 2021 Homestead race, and he finished third at Martinsville earlier this year. But with zero wins on unrestricted ovals this season, the No. 16 team will have to substantially pick up the pace to be a winning threat the next two weeks.

While a win would be nice, Allmendinger and the No. 16 team will have to be prepared to point their way in with solid runs. It’s now up to them to make it happen.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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A.J. will hang in there and he will be alright. There are still 2 ways for him to get into the Championship 4 and he is more than capable of doing either one.

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