Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: It’s Win or Bust for AJ Allmendinger

Last weekend’s event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course was an opportunity race for a lot of drivers. Michael McDowell was the one who took full advantage of that opportunity by winning the race and locking himself into the playoffs. Others, like Daniel Suarez and Brad Keselowski, made moves to maximize the points they earned throughout the race.

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Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez Still Below Playoff Cut Line After Top-5 Finishes

Then there’s the case of AJ Allmendinger, who surprisingly did nothing to help his postseason chances at Indianapolis. Allmendinger is not shut out of the playoffs yet, but his pathway there has become much more difficult.

The Kaulig Racing driver is one of only three drivers that have won a NASCAR Cup Series race at the IMS road course. That was the inaugural event in 2021, one of five Cup Series road races Allmendinger ran with Kaulig that season. It was a huge moment of triumph for Allmendinger, who appeared to be reenergized by the victory. Dismissed from JTG Daugherty Racing at the end of 2018, Allmendinger’s biggest presence in NASCAR had been “trophy hunting” with Kaulig in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The Indianapolis win raised his stock again.

Allmendinger’s part-time Xfinity gig with Kaulig turned into a full-time ride in 2021. He was competitive everywhere, winning five races and advancing to the championship event. Another five wins in 2022 convinced Allmendinger that he was ready to give full-time Cup Series racing another try. Near the end of the season, Kaulig announced that Allmendinger would become the sole driver of the No. 16 car in the Cup Series, which he split with Noah Gragson and Daniel Hemric in 2022.

During the offseason, Allmendinger emerged as a trendy pick to make the 2023 playoffs. He had done it once before by winning at Watkins Glen International in 2014. Perhaps more importantly, the Cup Series calendar now includes six road courses instead of the traditional two, giving Allmendinger more chances to score a win at his best type of track. Other factors, like the more level playing field created by the Next Gen car and Allmendinger’s history of success with Kaulig, made an interesting case for his ability to reach the postseason. The key was that all those factors had to work together in a way that would either get Allmendinger to victory lane or lift him above the crowded mid-pack of the Cup Series.

So far, things have not worked out in Allmendinger’s favor. He and the No. 16 team battled through a chaotic Daytona 500 to finish sixth, but then went the next 14 races without a top 10. He and Kaulig could not find the speed that they needed to be competitive. The first road race of the season, at Circuit of the Americas, brought no relief. Allmendinger got jammed up in a turn 1 crash on lap 60. The damage sustained to his Chevrolet knocked him out of the race.

A glimmer of hope came after the second road course race at Sonoma Raceway, where Allmendinger finished sixth. He jumped from 24th to 20th in overall points, beginning a slow march toward the playoff cut line. Road race number three on the streets of Chicago saw Allmendinger finish 17th, but the next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway proved far better. With rain approaching the speedway, Allmendinger elected not to pit under caution at lap 160 and picked up the lead. He fought hard to hold the top spot but was unable to fend off William Byron on lap 167. A dozen laps later, the caution came out for a crash back in the pack with Allmendinger in third. The rain began to fall shortly thereafter, cutting the race short and washing away Allmendinger’s best shot at victory.

Since the near miss at Atlanta, getting into the playoffs on points has not been out of the question for Allmendinger. After Michigan International Speedway a couple of weeks ago, he was 19th on the grid and only 21 points below the cut line. Going to Indianapolis presented a huge opportunity for Allmendinger to either win or scoop up enough points to leave with one of the last playoff spots.

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Stock Car Scoop: Michael McDowell Smacks the Field in Indianapolis

However, Sunday’s race was the worst-case scenario for Allmendinger. The No. 16 car was never near the front of the pack and collected no stage points. The only times Allmendinger got any attention was when Ryan Blaney spun him after a bit of bumper tag and when he ran wide in turn six through the gravel trap as the leaders came around to lap him. With a disappointing 26th-place finish, Allmendinger is now 21st in overall points, 87 below the playoff cut line. He can forget about reaching the playoffs on points.

Things have not clicked for Allmendinger and Kaulig in 2023, even on the road courses. Compare them to McDowell and Front Row Motorsports, who most expected to miss the playoffs but are now a guaranteed lock.

Just a week ago, McDowell was smack in the middle of the playoff dogfight and had some decisions to make about his future in NASCAR. Fast forward seven days and McDowell now has a contract extension with FRM, his second Cup Series win and his second playoff berth. It turns out FRM and McDowell were willing to stick with each other regardless of whether they made the playoffs. That mutual faith was rewarded on Sunday.

For Allmendinger, there is still hope as the regular season approaches its end. He will be one to keep an eye on at Watkins Glen this weekend, and Daytona could fall his way if the No. 16 is as fast as it was at Atlanta. However, it feels like Allmendinger’s best opportunities to reach the postseason in 2023 have come and gone. He’s going to be in an intense, pressure-packed situation for the next two weeks, the kind of scenario that dampened his enthusiasm for the Cup Series in the first place. If Allmendinger wins, he will return to the Cup Series playoffs for the first time in nine years. If he gets left out, he may reconsider whether he wants to be Cup Series racing at all. Either way, the next two weeks are win or bust for Allmendinger.   

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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As much as I love AJ & respect his talent. It looks to me like that Kaulig has overextended themselves. In the $$$ fueled world of NASCAR, that’s easy to do, & once past a certain point, it’s hard to recover from. I hope that whatever their problems, they can recover. But the problem would seem to be across the board.

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