Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: AJ Allmendinger, Michael McDowell Bark Loud at Sonoma

Top Dog: AJ Allmendinger

Superspeedways may be the great equalizer in NASCAR, but road courses are becoming a hidden gem for underdog teams.

While you may not necessarily see them win a race, their presence certainly is well known at or near the front.

Last year’s race at Sonoma Raceway certainly featured plenty of upset stories, led by Michael McDowell‘s near-miss on a breakthrough victory. Such was the case for the 2023 Toyota/Save Mart 350 (June 11) once again.

The man who led the underdogs this time should come as a surprise to no one: AJ Allmendinger. One glance at his road course stats is enough to show that he’s a threat, earning his two NASCAR Cup Series wins on road courses while holding 11 victories on the track type in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

During what has been a down year of sorts for Kaulig Racing’s Cup program, Sonoma provided the perfect opportunity for Allmendinger to get back on track. On Sunday, he delivered, providing his first top-10 effort since the season-opening Daytona 500.

The road course ace instantly flashed speed in qualifying, posting a lap good enough to land him fifth to start the race.

After falling to sixth, Allmendinger was the first to break up a five-car Toyota brigade at the front of the field that would eventually set him up for a fourth place, stage one showing.

With no stage cautions and the No. 16 team opting to keep Allmendinger out to gain points, he got shuffled back after pitting following the stage conclusion due to cars who had short pitted going by. However, the Los Gatos, Calif. native rebounded to sixth before the first caution flew shortly after lap 50.

One result of no stage cautions is the broader amount of strategies that can be played, gambles by others that would push Allmendinger back to 16th following pit stops under yellow. Several cars stayed out, and in a race where passing was harder than passing a kidney stone, it caused Allmendinger to round out stage two in 13th.

With just under 50 laps remaining, Allmendinger re-entered the top 10 before getting cycled out during green flag stops a short time later.

The final caution flew on lap 92, positioning Allmendinger in 11th for the last restart with just 15 circuits remaining. Running some of the fastest laps on track on fresh tires, the veteran sliced and diced his way through the field to climb into a sixth-place result.

It was a much-needed finish for Allmendinger, who only had one top 10 entering the race after earning six in a row during his part-time stint a year ago.

While the sting of missing victory lane will be fresh, the 41-year-old leaves northern California with a runner-up in the Xfinity race and a Cup race where he matched his best finish of the season. Don’t look now, but Allmendinger is only 33 points out of the final playoff spot after 16 races.

Who Impressed?

While Allmendinger had solid speed, McDowell may have been the underdog of the race. At the same time, he certainly has to be wondering what could have been.

Perhaps the moment where there was no doubt McDowell would be in the hunt was when he had to rally around the cars who had pitted before stage one’s conclusion. Despite falling outside the top five, McDowell passed Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, pressuring Christopher Bell for third when the first caution was displayed.

See also
Michael McDowell Finishes 7th at Sonoma Despite Late-Race Pit Woes, Ryan Blaney Contact

Several contenders struggled to fight back to the front following the restart due to cars staying out. However, as the dominant Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. made its way forward, the bright yellow No. 34 of McDowell was in his tracks. McDowell eventually got to third, looking to have a car that could compete with Truex when the final caution flew.

That’s where heartbreak struck.

On the money stop, a lug nut fell off McDowell’s car, lengthening the stop and forcing him outside the top 10 for the restart. But the Phoenix, Ariz. native never backed down, quickly rebounding into the top 10 and staying there despite contact with Ryan Blaney. He ultimately would finish seventh for back-to-back top 10s. When a seventh-place run is likely a disappointment, you know this team was a force to be reckoned with.

Overshadowed by Allmendinger’s and McDowell’s success was the 12th-place finish by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. In nine previous Sonoma starts, Stenhouse had never sniffed the top 15, with only two top 20s and a career-best run of 18th.

But in 2023, there appears to be a new Stenhouse: “Mr. Consistency.” He made multiple appearances in the top 10 during the race, earning points in both stages as well. Despite falling outside the top 20 at one point, the No. 47 quickly rebounded, and the race served as one of Stenhouse’s best road course performances at the Cup level.

If you flash back to Circuit of the Americas, a seventh-place run was Stenhouse’s first road course top 10 in the Cup Series. Match that with the 12th-place finish at Sonoma, as well as other milestones he has reached this season, and 2023 has arguably been a career-best for Stenhouse. Had it not been for a late crash at World Wide Technology Raceway, the 35-year-old would likely have nine straight top 15s. He also is still on pace for a career high in average finish (14.6).

Once again, Corey LaJoie crept into the top 20 by the end of the race to earn a solid 20th-place run. LaJoie could have been discouraged by the underwhelming fill-in performance for Chase Elliott in St. Louis. Instead? He put on his gloves and went to work for Spire Motorsports. The No. 7 hovered around the top 20 for most of the race, staying out of trouble and battling with some of the big dogs. LaJoie’s finish is his second top 20 in four Sonoma starts and his ninth such result of 2023.

A couple of drivers outside the top 20 deserve some props after having to battle to make passes on the 11-turn track. Justin Haley ran the fastest lap of the race and had to rebound from getting caught a lap down during a pit stop cycle to finish 21st. Had he earned some track position, it could have been a different story.

In spite of some contact with Josh Bilicki and some added spice on Twitter, Ty Dillon turned in a respectable 23rd-place run. Bilicki remained none too happy after the race, though, with an incident he considered easily avoidable.

And after an abysmal outing with Rick Ware Racing in his last start with them at the Coca-Cola 600, Todd Gilliland stepped into the No. 51 this weekend and produced a respectable 24th-place result.

Underdogs Who Built the Sport

As we reflect on underdogs who have contributed to the prestige of NASCAR over 75 years, there have been many cases of road course aces contributing to the success of dark horses.

One of those drivers was Robby Gordon.

While Gordon wasn’t necessarily an underdog in the early years of his full-time career with Richard Childress Racing, his wins were certainly pleasant upsets. Gordon’s second career victory came at Sonoma in a dominant performance that saw him start on the front row and lead 81 laps en route to victory.

After leaving RCR in 2004, Gordon started Robby Gordon Motorsports, a single-car team where he would spend the remainder of his career. As was typical in his RCR days, the Los Angeles, Calif. native was a constant threat on road courses.

From 2005-2007, Gordon earned three consecutive top fives at Watkins Glen International. His runs at Sonoma shouldn’t be overlooked either, a track where he led 48 laps in 2007 before finishing 16th and where he earned his final career top five in 2010 with a runner-up finish.

In 396 Cup starts, Gordon attained three wins, 16 top fives, 39 top 10s, and several moments of entertaining on-track and off-track fireworks.

What They’re Saying

Allmendinger (sixth):

McDowell (seventh):

Haley (21st): ā€œOverall, it was not a bad day for this No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection team. I feel like we were really good in the high-speed areas and not so great in the braking zones. I felt like we had some speed, but my biggest issue was not being able to pass. We will regroup after the off week for Nashville.ā€

Small Team Scheme of the Week

While there weren’t many new schemes at Sonoma, one finally gets the recognition it deserves. LaJoie had longtime sponsor Schluter Systems on his No. 7 this weekend, a scheme that seemed to mesh well with the California sun. The white and orange car may have a simple design, but it is a clean scheme that deserves more credit.

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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Dawg

If AJ & McDowell drove for Hendrick, no other team would stand much of a chance on the road courses.

And speaking of Stenhouse, I’d love to see what he could do with a top-quality ride. He’s certainly never had one. He drove for Roush when they were at their low point. Then got demoted to JGG Daughtery, because Roush wouldn’t believe that his real trouble was his cars, not his driver.
As for wrecking cars, that’s what happens when you have to push past the limit trying to get decent results out of a POS.

Now his age will no doubt keep him from ever getting a much better chance, especially with all the young & talented drivers working their way through the ladder series.

Alex Curtis

LOL, OK, Just liker Boris Said is the greatest racer ever. BTW, where did road course superhero Andy Lally finish? How did superstar Alex Labbe do Saturday? You must be another another of the “heel and toe ” crowd, something that hasn’t been seen in road racing in 30 years.

Gary K

Just an opinion here, but if this was an oval, I see the NASCAR media coming out of the woodwork with the ‘snoozer’, or ‘follow the leader’ comments and pictures of the empty stands. Odd nothing so far from Sonoma?