Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: AJ Allmendinger Stands Alone on the ROVAL Mountain

Top Dog: AJ Allmendinger

Trophy hunting.

That is the mission and phrase that Kaulig Racing holds itself to when the team hits the track on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s the hashtag used in many of their social media posts as well.

Kaulig has claimed that trophy prize on several occasions. In 2021, AJ Allmendinger earned the organization its first NASCAR Cup Series win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

At the time, it was in the midst of a part-time season in a pathway to joining 23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing as new teams at NASCAR’s premier level. While 23XI and Trackhouse were experiencing growing pains, Allmendinger’s win set Kaulig up to be the most successful of the new trio.

As time wore on, 23XI and Trackhouse got stronger in a short amount of time and now are competing as title contenders.

See also
AJ Allmendinger Wins Wild Elimination Race at Charlotte ROVAL

Kaulig? Not so much. Both its lucrative NASCAR Xfinity Series program and its Cup program seemed to tail off at times between 2022 and 2023. Still, its veteran leader Allmendinger continued to shed rays of hope with strong runs.

Up until the Charlotte ROVAL (Oct. 8), that Indy win stood as Kaulig’s lone Cup win. Allmendinger changed that at the last road-course event of 2023.

After pacing himself to a steady start in the opening stages of the race, the door opened for the 41-year-old as stage two was wrapping up.

Two-time ROVAL winner Chase Elliott looked to have assumed control of the race, taking the lead in the second stage and setting himself up for a shot at the victory. But as Elliott went to pit before the stage’s end, a caution flew, forcing him to stay on track. One caution wiped away all of Elliott’s track position.

Allmendinger started on the front row to begin the final stage, lurking behind Kyle Busch for a few laps. On lap 58, he made his move, clearing Busch on the backstretch chicane to take the lead.

He never let up.

A race known for chaos, the ROVAL didn’t let up once again, featuring four cautions in the final stage. Despite challenges from a desperate Busch, Ty Gibbs, and the 2023 wins leader, William Byron, Allmendinger’s road-course expertise came through, outlasting Byron for the win.

The emotion was evident from Allmendinger, who welcomed his first child, Aero, last month. Tears streamed and jubilation flowed as the Kaulig driver celebrated his third career Cup win and first since that Indy triumph.

“Because you don’t know when you’re going to do it again,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports when asked about his emotions. “My mom and dad, all my family and friends … Those people see how much anguish and how much I put it on my shoulders when we’re struggling. It just means the world.”

Not only did he display his road course prowess, he also highlighted his ROVAL tenacity. In seven ROVAL starts between Cup and Xfinity, he has won five times. His 46 laps led were also the most he’s led since Bristol Motor Speedway in 2012.

At 42, Allmendinger’s future is uncertain. He did confirm that he would return to Kaulig in the summer, but in what series is the question. The NBC Sports broadcast also noted how Allmendinger hoped to return to Cup, but had nothing to confirm.

For a driver who wears his heart on his sleeve for Kaulig and has shouldered the weight of success so many times, the ball should be in his court at this point.

Who’s in the Dog House

See that title above? Aside from the win, Allmendinger certainly had the moment to himself among the underdogs. Corey LaJoie also deserves some credit for a 17th-place finish despite run-ins with Josh Bilicki, Austin Dillon and Martin Truex Jr.

While Legacy Motor Club has seen an impressive boost in performance over the past several weeks, its road-course program continued to suffer this season. Road-course veteran Mike Rockenfeller made his final start in the No. 42. The German had a solid 19th-place finish in his last outing for the team at Watkins Glen. This time was more of a struggle, however.

Rockenfeller never had much pace throughout the race and things ultimately worsened on lap 76. Denny Hamlin spun exiting the frontstretch chicane, sitting in the middle of the track. That was bad news for Rockenfeller, who clipped Hamlin’s right rear, damaging his right-front fender and ending Hamlin’s day. Rockenfeller finished 29th.

His teammate Erik Jones didn’t experience anything more optimal. Jones struggled with pace throughout the day, including a spin in the first stage. While battling with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on lap 80, Jones was turned by Stenhouse in the infield portion of the track, making heavy contact with the wall before getting hit by Michael McDowell. Jones ended up 36th.

The wreck with Jones rubbed salt in a wound that was growing for McDowell. The 2023 Indianapolis road-course winner was optimistic for the event given road-racing prowess. At first, that was justified as McDowell ran inside the top 10 at times. However, the Front Row Motorsports driver reported power steering issues in stage two, prompting the team to go under the hood at the end of stage.

Fighting no power steering is a difficult test. Doing it on a road course is even more unfavorable, but McDowell was able to hold steady mid-pack. Unfortunately, one issue stacked after another. McDowell slid the tires during the final stage, then nearly spun on lap 70, causing Hamlin to spin.

That same lap, his left-front tire went flat, costing him several seconds. Just when it looked like things couldn’t get worse, the lap 80 accident occurred, ultimately relegating McDowell to 32nd.

Stenhouse’s race was forgettable as well. His misfortunes started immediately when he hit the wall in the opening laps, sending him to pit road. After losing two laps, Stenhouse returned to the lead lap after stage two. Yet, the bad luck was still ahead of him.

The 35-year-old was hit by McDowell when he cut the tire, then had the contact with Jones a handful of laps later. With just over 20 to go, the No. 47’s cockpit was filled with smoke, causing Stenhouse to lose another lap. The team originally thought they had fixed the problem, but an even larger issue ignited on lap 97. Entering turn 2, Stenhouse’s car burst into flames, forcing him out of the race and leaving him in 34th.

Underdog Silly Season Scoop

As the season winds down, several underdogs know their plans for 2024. Harrison Burton‘s return to the Wood Brothers was finally confirmed at Talladega Superspeedway. Daniel Hemric will drive Kaulig’s No. 31 entry in 2024 with the impending departure of Justin Haley. Still, a few drivers have not confirmed what 2024 will look like in addition to Allmendinger.

  • With three entries lined up for 2024, Spire Motorsports has not announced who will be in the No. 77 next season. Ty Dillon currently drives the car, but speculation grows that someone like Carson Hocevar could step in next season.
  • Rick Ware Racing has also not confirmed its plans for their second car. With Haley being a driver it can build around, there is intrigue to see if it keeps a rotation of drivers in the second ride.

What They’re Saying

Allmendinger (first): “This is why you do it. This is the only reason you do it. You fight. All the blood, sweat, tears, everybody at Kaulig Racing has just been such … I wouldn’t say a down year, but an up-and-down year. It’s our second year in the Cup Series.”

Bilicki (26th):

Jones (36th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Despite the result, JTG Daughtery Racing delivered on another mouth-watering scheme, this time with Totino’s Pizza Rolls on the hood. Yes, that irresistible snack your mom made after athletic practices, or the addiction you had in college made it on a Cup scheme.

The red and yellow looked fast from front to back, unfortunately resulting in burnt pizza rolls at the end.

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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