Top Dog: AJ Allmendinger
This year’s playoff race has certainly been among the most interesting.
A win by Michael McDowell at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course broadened the points gap between bubble drivers, but several drivers on the cut were expected to be favorites for the upcoming races at Watkins Glen International and Daytona International Speedway.
With The Glen up first, AJ Allmendinger was certainly among the biggest threats to burst the playoff bubble, as he earned his first career NASCAR Cup Series win at the track in 2014.
Allmendinger flexed his muscles in practice, setting both the single fastest lap and fastest overall lap average. In the race, however, a lack of cautions and a difficulty to pass only gave Allmendinger a sniff of victory, as he finished fourth in Sunday’s (Aug. 20) Go Bowling at The Glen.
Qualifying was a factor in the outcome, as all five finishers inside the top five started seventh or better. Allmendinger started sixth and quickly worked his way into the top five, but that is where things became challenging.
Once the Kaulig Racing driver got to fifth, he stayed there for the remainder of stage one. Allmendinger stayed out longer than most drivers following the stage, eventually making his first pit stop and cycling to fourth.
Lapped traffic bunched the leaders up, allowing Allmendinger to close in despite getting passed by Kyle Larson. However, the dirty air kept him in fifth to close stage two.
As Allmendinger was making his final stop, the lone caution of the race flew for Chase Elliott stalling on track with no fuel; it was a caution that worked in Allmendinger’s favor. The 41-year-old ran fourth and stayed within striking distance of the second- and third-place cars as the laps ticked down, but he was ultimately unable to get by them, taking the checkered in fourth.
The result was positive for Allmendinger following a disappointing week in Indianapolis. The No. 16 displayed speed off the hauler, but it ultimately came down to track position that kept him from winning.
Entering the regular season finale at Daytona, Allmendinger is in a must-win scenario to make the playoffs. While superspeedways aren’t his forte, never say never at Daytona. Regardless, it has been a solid building year for the Kaulig organization.
Front Row Motorsports put together another impressive weekend, but it was Todd Gilliland leading the charge at the finish. Remember, Gilliland led laps in this race a year ago before suffering a mechanical issue.
The sophomore driver put together one of the more impressive performances, storming from his 25th starting spot to just missing a top 10 finish. Gilliland was one of the drivers who short pitted most of the race, which caught him in 32nd when the lone caution flew. However, the No. 38 cycled back into the top 15 for the restart, where he was able to hold steady and capture his first top 15 since Pocono Raceway.
Once again, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. landed a career-best finish at another track, finishing in 13th for his best career showing at The Glen. Stenhouse was a beneficiary of the caution when it flew just as he had pitted. That allowed him to jump into the top 15, where he took advantage of the track position to gain a couple of spots before settling in 13th at the finish. It is also Stenhouse’s first top 15 since Pocono, and it is the third road course this season where he earned a career-best finish (with Circuit of the Americas and Sonoma Raceway as the others).
Mike Rockenfeller was quietly one of the more impressive international drivers a week ago at Indianapolis. Considering the lack of time that he had to prepare – as well as the struggles from Legacy Motor Club this season – Rockenfeller landed a top-25 finish at Indy a week ago.
He topped that at The Glen, running right around the top 20 for most of the race. The No. 42 team mixed it up with the pit strategy, staying out to end stage one to finish the stage in 13th. Rockenfeller was caught on track when the caution flew on lap 55, but the German driver recovered to finish 19th. Not only was it a career-high Cup showing for Rockenfeller, but it was just the third time the No. 42 landed in the top 20 this season. Hopefully, it will lead to additional opportunities.
Corey LaJoie landed a top-20 run, but it might actually be bittersweet this time. LaJoie displayed tremendous speed in practice, running both the second-fastest single lap and overall lap average of the session. The Spire Motorsports driver also made the final round of qualifying for the first time in his career, qualifying 10th.
Unfortunately, he was forced to relinquish that spot due to unapproved adjustments, putting him in a hole from the very beginning. Considering the difficulty in passing, LaJoie did a solid job, nearly reaching the top 20 by the end of stage one. However, the lack of track position ultimately hindered him from climbing any further with a 20th-place finish after 90 laps.
Who’s in the Dog House
Erik Jones was unable to slice through the field like Rockenfeller, as he was mired outside the top 20 for much of the race. Jones was involved in an incident early on when Harrison Burton checked up in front of Andy Lally entering the Carousel. Jones was unable to react quick enough, getting into Lally, who turned Burton as a result. Jones’ deep starting position of 31st cut him no favors, as he was only able to improve to 29th by the end.
As mentioned above, the spin set Burton back before he ever had a shot. The Wood Brothers Racing pilot had to immediately pit due to flat spotting the tires, quickly putting him one lap down. Burton was unable to get back on the lead lap, finishing 34th.
NASCAR certainly can give the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. After experiencing arguably a career-high at Indianapolis by winning the race, McDowell fell on the opposite end of the spectrum this week. On lap 75, McDowell suddenly lost power while running inside the top 10. The engine issue forced him behind the wall and out of the race, leaving him in 36th.
It wasn’t a total waste for the FRM driver. McDowell appeared to be picking up where he left off from Indy, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin on lap 4. McDowell ultimately led 17 laps and earned another playoff point by winning stage one.
Last week, the No. 34 team kept McDowell in the catbird seat by executing all day. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case at The Glen. McDowell was hit with a penalty for going through too many pit stalls prior to his first stop, dropping him outside the top 10.
On lap 53, the team suffered another penalty for the crew going over the wall too soon. Despite the miscues, McDowell still had the speed to pass cars and run inside the top 10 before the engine issue finally did him in. Regardless, it was setting up to be another impressive run from the 38-year-old.
What They’re Saying
Jones (29th): “Not a very good day. I started in the back, had an issue and went to the back again. That’s pretty much all we had. It went all-green. I hope next week at Daytona will be better. It’s the last shot to win and try to get in the playoffs. So we’ll try to go do that.”
Underdog Playoff Watch
At this point, all of the underdogs are in a must-win scenario to crack the playoff field with one race to go in the regular season. However, it may just be the perfect opportunity by heading to Daytona, where anything can happen.
Jones will be one to watch, as he won the Daytona summer race in 2018 and has two top 10s on superspeedways this season. And while Allmendinger has admitted he isn’t a fan of superspeedways, he did finish sixth in the Daytona 500.
His Kaulig teammate Justin Haley will be one to watch too. Haley’s lone career Cup win came in a rain-shortened event in the summer of 2019, and he was in contention a year ago until the Big One Hit.
However, this is Daytona we’re talking about. It is literally win or go home, quite possibly with a disfigured race car.
Small Team Scheme of the Week
It was hard to miss Stenhouse’s car this week, especially if you’re a waffle fan. Stenhouse’s No. 47 carried Sugarlands Shine and Eggo on the car, producing a scheme that certainly was not waffled. The scheme not only came home in one piece, but also was treated to a top 15 run.
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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