Top Dog: AJ Allmendinger
AJ Allmendinger once stated he was finally having fun competing in stock cars the minute he found a home with Kaulig Racing. Following years of inconsistency, off-track issues and subpar equipment, Allmendinger has come into his own at the ripe age of 40.
Running part-time for Kaulig in the NASCAR Cup Series this season, Allmendinger carried a streak of five consecutive top 10s into the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23).
That streak continued in a big way, with Allmendinger placing third and even competing for the win in Sunday’s closing laps.
The No. 16 took off like a rocket from the 10th position, climbing into the top five in under 20 laps. Allmendinger stayed around there before finishing sixth to end stage one. Stage two became a struggle for the ‘Dinger as he lost grip and the car tightened up, resulting in a 13th-place finish at the end of the second frame.
Allmendinger climbed just inside the top 10 during the final stage when Ryan Blaney spun to bring out the yellow with just over 50 laps to go. That allowed Allmendinger to take advantage of his short run speed, climbing from 11th to seventh. The ‘Dinger cracked the top five again before another caution flew for Tyler Reddick with 23 laps to go. That set up a restart that saw the veteran crack down on the field.
After restarting eighth with 17 to go, Allmendinger propelled himself to second and closed in on leader Kyle Larson. However, he had a driver with a similar, aggressive style right behind him in Ross Chastain. The battle between the two matched with Larson’s increasing speed was too great to overcome, and Chastain moved by for the runner-up spot.
Man, running up front is a BLAST!@AJDinger ran top-10 all day and had a shot to go for the win at the end! 🙌@Justin_Haley_ had top-15 speed all race but had his day derailed by a flat tire in stage two. 😑#DixieVodka400 | #TrophyHunting pic.twitter.com/3UuDsy1QWM
— Kaulig Racing (@KauligRacing) October 23, 2022
It’s Kaulig’s first full-time Cup season, and earlier this year, a top 10 would have been considered a win. Instead, the organization can walk away optimistic knowing it had the potential to get more out of the third-place result.
Allmendinger has now hit the .500 mark for top 10s, earning eight in 16 starts this season. His longest stretch of consecutive top 10s in a Cup career that’s spanned over a decade also resulted in his best finish on an intermediate track.
It seems Allmendinger has found the Fountain of Youth, getting better as he ages. And as a driver returning to full-time Cup competition next season, races like we saw at Homestead may become the norm.
Outside of Allmendinger, the underdogs struggled to find their rhythm in a race that featured several long green flag runs. Allmendinger was the only driver who placed inside the top 10.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led off the best of the rest. Homestead seems like a track that Stenhouse would excel at to begin with. After all, he’s had strong runs on tracks with tire fall-off, multiple grooves and rim-riding opportunities.
That showed in practice, where the No. 47 featured a lot of speed. It took a while to find in the race, though. Stenhouse struggled with grip and dirty air early on, miring him outside the top 20. However, as the lap count climbed, so did Stenhouse’s running position. By the time stage two ended, he had climbed inside the top 15.
With just over 50 laps to go, the No. 47 drove inside the top 10 for the first time, and Stenhouse kept it there until the final caution with 23 to go. Unfortunately, the desperation of late-race restarts hindered Stenhouse, dropping him to 15th when the checkered flag flew. It is his first top 15 since Watkins Glen International.
A year ago, Homestead was the site of Michael McDowell’s third straight top 10 to begin the 2021 season, one of his pleasant surprises. This time, the race’s date was quite different, back in the playoffs for the first time since 2019. McDowell wasn’t quite able to garner the same result, struggling with handling early on that left him one lap down in stage two.
The Front Row Motorsports driver got the free pass in stage three, using the final restart to climb a couple of positions to 16th. In what has been a career year for the 37-year-old, it can be easy to overlook such finishes. However, they are still solid building blocks for Front Row Motorsports’ future, and finishes like these used to be considered wins for this group. Can you see the improvement?
Kaulig brought some serious speed to the track, with Justin Haley impressing once again. A NBC Sports graphic displaying the top 15 points earners in the playoffs included Haley, who brought five straight top 15s into South Beach. That streak appeared to be on track to stay alive, with the No. 31 flirting near the top 10 in stage one. Unfortunately, Haley suffered a flat tire in stage two, forcing him to make an unscheduled stop. The lack of cautions didn’t allow for a recovery, relegating him to 28th.
It was a big week for Spire Motorsports, which announced that it will field two full-time cars in 2023. Ty Dillon, who currently drives for Petty GMS Motorsports, will jump in the No. 77 for the 2023 campaign. The team’s current full-time driver, Corey LaJoie, withstood a couple of hits in the outside wall to finish 23rd, while Dillon wound up 26th.
Underdogs Sound Off
Allmendinger (third): “The short runs (felt really good). It was really hooked up. We still have to work on our long-run package in general. That’s something that’s kind of been weak for us at Kaulig Racing. We got that caution with 18 to go, I was like we’ve got a shot at this, and we lost a couple of spots on pit road but restarted eighth. Ross and I had a fun battle. I think I needed about an 11-lap run to catch Kyle. But overall, just proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing to get the Chevy in the top five and just have another solid day.
“We know how it goes in the offseason. A lot of stuff changes. Everybody works on the cars. It’s all about trying to build a notebook and get ready for next year. This is just giving us confidence. This is part of the reason why I made the decision to go full-time Cup because I felt like the group that we have on the Cup side can be really good. We have a lot of work to do, but it can be really good, and I want to be a part of that.”
Dillon (26th): “We didn’t really have the speed we needed all day with our Sunseeker Resorts Camaro. In the first 15 or 20 laps, we just got so far behind and wasn’t really able to recover. It was definitely a struggle all day, and we lost some positions with the spin on the last lap, too. Hopefully, we will get better for the last two races.”
Erik Jones (30th): “Today just wasn’t our day. I thought we found some things at the test that would help us, but we struggled all race with the handling. We’ve got some work to do for sure before we come back here next year. You’ll have weeks like this, especially as we continue to learn this car. Glad to have this one behind us and move on to next week at Martinsville.”
We also had a little Underdog drama in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race as Stefan Parsons got involved in a late wreck with Kyle Sieg to bring out the final caution of the race. Parsons explained his side of the story to Frontstretch in a race where he tangled with both Sieg brothers competing.
Stefan Parsons (34th in Xfinity race):
Top 10 Underdog Moments Since 2000 – No. 3
There are not many sporting events more prestigious than the Daytona 500. After all, it is the Super Bowl of stock car racing. The event itself is a living highlight reel, providing some of the best races, scary moments, jaw-dropping action, and upset winners in its storied history. That legacy added a new page in 2021 with an outstanding finish.
The Big One typically occurs late in the race or at its midpoint. However, it didn’t take long in this case. A bump that went wrong from Christopher Bell to Aric Almirola ignited a 16-car crash, preceded a red flag for lightning and rain that lasted nearly six hours.
When the race went green, it mirrored Florida weather: the calm before the storm. The final stage went caution-free, with manufacturers hooking up and green flag pit stop strategy becoming a game changer in the late going.
On the final lap, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski was pushing teammate Joey Logano for the win. However, a push from Chase Elliott into McDowell propelled McDowell’s No. 34 to the back of Keselowski. Keselowski ducked low but spun into Logano, setting off a fiery crash that took out 10 cars.
When NASCAR reviewed timing and scoring at the moment of caution, it was found that McDowell had edged Elliott for his first career victory and the third for Front Row Motorsports. It was one of the biggest upset wins in the race’s history, immediately jumbling up the playoff field as well.
Small Team Scheme of the Week
South Beach brought some sweet schemes in alignment with Miami Vice. One scheme, however, may not have been as flashy, but it was a clean look that stole the spotlight to become the scheme of the week. That would be Todd Gilliland’s No. 38, which brought EO South Florida and its partners on the car. The ride featured blue, white and pink, a slick combination for the heat of Miami. Gilliland finished his Homestead-Miami debut in 31st.
Green flag stop coming up for the No.38 @EOSOFLA Ford Mustang.
“Definitely turns better this run.” – @ToddGilliland_ pic.twitter.com/BUEOb0k7g0
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) October 23, 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.
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I would submit, that Kaulig either has, or is losing its underdog status.
While I consider both Austin Dillon, who’s consistently been. overshadowed by his teammate. And Kez, who’s working an amazing transformation to a team that’s won what, two races? (Both plate wins) in the previous 10 years or so, is an underdog as well. Though I expect them to shed that designation in ’23 as well.