Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: AJ Allmendinger’s Momentum Survives ‘Organized Chaos’ at Atlanta

Organized chaos.

Those two words uttered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. during stage two of the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (July 9) may be the perfect ones to describe what took place on the revamped track.

The fourth edition of the superspeedway-style Atlanta produced one of the most entertaining pack races in years, with several media personalities and fans comparing it to the superspeedway racing of the early 21st century. It quite possibly was a candidate for race of the year as well.

Unfortunately, fans were left with a bit of sour taste as the race was called 75 laps short of the finish due to a long-awaited storm touching down.

However, emerging from the disappointment of rain and a chance at a win was some continued momentum for AJ Allmendinger, who finished third as a result.

After starting 19th, Allmendinger quietly moved forward during stage one to finish in 12th. As stage two began, so did the intensity as reports circulated of a storm coming in.

And that meme above brought to you by RFK Racing was 100% correct. The racing picked up from an already intense stage one, with dicey moves, close calls and a few hurt feelings. However, the 41-year-old veteran Allmendinger remained calm, staying towards the front of the field before making a pit stop later in the stage. He quickly rebounded from mid-pack to drive up to fifth and grab six valuable stage points.

The nerves for Kaulig intensified as several drivers had to pit following stage two, handing the lead to Allmendinger. Unfortunately, it was short-lived, as William Byron made the pass for the lead shortly before a caution flew for a spin. The race never resumed, leaving Allmendinger just short of a breakthrough win.

The sting of coming up short may carry with Kaulig Racing this week, as a potential 1-2-3 finish or even a win was dashed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday night. Allmendinger’s near miss certainly won’t quell that ‘what if,’ but there is still a lot to be optimistic about.

Despite a down year of sorts to begin the first couple of months, Allmendinger has found his groove since the Coca-Cola 600. In the past six races, the Los Gatos, Calif. native has finished in the top 15 five times, including three of his four top 10s on the season. The only finish outside the top 15? A 17th at the Chicago street course a week ago, which was a product of the race being shortened.

Allmendinger still sits outside the playoff cut line, but he is easily within striking distance. He sits in 18th, only 13 points back of the 16th and final spot.

With a flat track in New Hampshire Motor Speedway next week, two more road courses (two where he has won) and Daytona International Speedway, Allmendinger has been maximizing on his potential to cash in.

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Who Impressed

The rain came as both a blessing and a curse for Michael McDowell in the Peach State. The downside arrived in the form of another close miss on reaching victory lane, as the Front Row Motorsports driver finished fourth. The positive? McDowell would likely not have finished fourth if the race had resumed for only a few laps due to his fuel situation.

Perhaps no driver other than Byron faced more of an emotional roller coaster than McDowell. After establishing himself as a threat in stage one, disaster nearly struck early in stage two during a pit stop. As he was exiting his pit stall, McDowell made heavy contact with Martin Truex Jr., sending Truex for a spin while ripping McDowell’s right front fender off.

The damage appeared to end any chance of winning. But as long as you stay in the hunt at a superspeedway, never rule someone out. McDowell proved just that, storming back from 36th to finish the second stage in eighth, including some evasive action to avoid an accident on lap 155.

After staying out to begin the final stage, McDowell’s fuel situation was dire. However, a caution on lap 178 significantly helped him, allowing him to hang on until the cars were called to pit road. Ultimately, the strategy allowed him to earn his first top five of the season. But even more important, the 38-year-old now holds the final playoff spot by three points with more bread-and-butter tracks for him on the way. McDowell has also earned four of his five top 10s this season in the past five races.

If you are reading this, you were 10 years younger the last time J.J. Yeley finished in the top 10, which occurred with a 10th-place run in the 2013 Daytona 500. That means it had been nearly 200 starts since Yeley cracked the top 10. However, that streak is no more, as Yeley finished seventh in Atlanta.

Yeley got into the top five during stage two and kept his No. 15 in contention for a large part of the night. The result was his best finish since 2008 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a race that was coincidentally rain-shortened as well. The 46-year-old has not run all 36 races in a season since his second year with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2007. However, his average finish this year (24th) is on track to be his best since ’07, where his average finish was 22.6.

Justin Haley backed up his runner-up at Chicago last week with a eighth-place run. The Winamac, Ind., native flashed speed throughout the whole race, getting as high as third and making his presence known, including earning four points in stage two. Despite pitting following the second stage, the No. 31 car sliced and diced through the field to pick up the top 10, Haley’s second consecutive such result.

It was a milestone-achieving night for the 24-year-old, as it was the first time he’s scored back-to-back top 10s in his Cup career. He also has the most top 10s he has scored in a season with five, eclipsing the four he had in 2022.

Rounding out the top 10 was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose superspeedway prowess was on display once again. Much like the Daytona 500 in which he won, Stenhouse was fairly absent from the front for the first half of the race, spending a sizable amount of time outside the top 20. But when it mattered most, there was the No. 47 in the picture when the intensity increased. Despite making contact with Ryan Preece that sparked the final caution, the 35-year-old was able to score his sixth top 10 of the season, the most he has earned in a single season with JTG-Daugherty Racing.

Erik Jones had his hands full with other drivers all night, but still rallied to finish in 11th. Jones made contact with Ty Gibbs in stage two, got into the back of a spinning Kyle Larson shortly after, and then made contact with Corey LaJoie on lap 123, sparking a seven-car crash. On top of that, he also made contact with the wall during the stage. Despite this, he still was able to earn his third straight finish of 16th or better.

The latter part of the top 20 included some strong runs as well. Todd Gilliland capped off a solid night that saw him run inside the top five at times with a 16th-place result, giving him back-to-back top 20s. Ty Dillon continued to find his rhythm with Spire Motorsports, scoring a 19th-place finish after struggling with handling in the first stage. It is his second top 20 of the year. And rounding out the top 20 was BJ McLeod, who also overcame making contact with the wall at one point; it was also his second top 20 of 2023.

What They’re Saying

McDowell (fourth):

Yeley (seventh):

Haley (eighth): “Atlanta continues to be a really strong track for this Kaulig Racing team. We fired off super loose, but Trent (Owens) made some great adjustments that got us back where we needed to be for the start of the second stage. It was a lot of fun running second there for a while and racing in the top five. We knew the weather was moving in, and we thought we might have a good strategy there. Unfortunately, it ended just a little too soon, but overall it was a good day for Kaulig Racing.”

Jones (11th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Whether you were celebrating with fireworks on the Fourth of July this past week or enthralled by the on-track fireworks at Atlanta, how about a related livery for scheme of the week? Yeley piloted the No. 15 Patriot Mobile/Sound of Freedom Ford for Rick Ware Racing in the race. And, you guessed it, the sponsor and colors matched. Yeley’s car featured a red, white, and blue look, complete with stars on the quarter panels. It got treated to a top 10, compliments of Yeley.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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