Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: NASCAR Underdogs No Match for AJ Allmendinger at COTA

Top Dog: AJ Allmendinger

With each passing season, the craft of the NASCAR field on road courses continues to sharpen.

The days of a road ringer dominating have slowly evaporated into thin air, an admirable nod to the regulars for their efforts to become more competitive.

That transformation was on full display this past weekend at Circuit of the Americas, where several international stars and established road racing masters tried their hand at North America’s top motorsport across all three levels.

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William Byron Holds Off Christopher Bell, Wins in Austin

In the EchoPark Automotive 500 (March 24), foreign stars such as New Zealand’s Shane van Gisbergen and Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi appeared in cars that were capable of running well.

Yet, it was NASCAR’s own road warrior in AJ Allmendinger who stood above the rest at the end of the day in sixth.

Driving a third entry for Kaulig Racing in the No. 13, the weekend was not a bed of roses for the veteran. His frustration was evident in a radio exchange during qualifying, which he later said was aimed at himself. Despite some handling issues, he still mustered a 14th-place starting spot.

Allmendinger burst through the gates to fire off, immediately grabbing four spots on the first lap. He shot up to sixth quickly before using the standard road course strategy by pitting before the stage end. That gave him a 14th-place stage one finish.

Stage two saw the Dinger crack the top five, flexing his muscles by passing some strong competition. Once again, his team opted to go for the win by flipping the stage and pitting with two laps left.

After finishing stage two in 22nd, Allmendinger restarted in 12th and quickly climbed back inside the top 10. A caution-free final stage saw green flag pits stop midway through for the 42-year-old, and he picked up right where he left off for the final stint. A pass on Ross Chastain gave him sixth, where he would close out the day to grab his second top 10 in three starts this season.

The day smoothed over a missed opportunity at a Kaulig 1-2 between van Gisbergen and Allmendinger in the NASCAR Xfinity Series on Saturday, where cautions and track limit penalties snared both in the closing laps.

Though it has been revealed that Allmendinger did not want to return to a part-time Cup schedule, it has seemed to be his forte the last couple of years. If you combine his 2021 and 2022 part-time stints at Kaulig with the first two races of 2024, he would have a 50% top 10 rate with 13 top 10s in 26 such starts. And very likely, there are more to come this season.

How Does it Compare?

In the fourth edition of the Cup Series at COTA, Allmendinger’s sixth-place run was on par with past results. Technically, Chastain holds the best underdog performance at the track, scoring his first career win there in 2022 (he was soon removed from The Underdog House). In the inaugural race in 2021, Allmendinger was the top dog, finishing fifth in that event. Last year, Michael McDowell paced the underdogs with a sixth-place result. So next year, sixth is the spot to beat for the top dog.

Notable Underdog Runs

Another race, another Justin Haley sighting at making Rick Ware Racing competitive. Following last week’s event at Bristol Motor Speedway where Haley put the garage on notice with a career race for RWR, he backed it up with a 17th-place run at COTA. At least, for a short time.

The No. 51 was an establishment inside the top 15 for most of the day, as Haley kept his car clean and remained mistake-free. In the final stage, he once again appeared in the top 10, running there for several laps. The only noticeable hiccup was a fueling issue on his final stop that likely cost him multiple spots.

Still, he got back inside the top 15 in the closing laps before fuel-saving measures relegated him to 17th. Unfortunately, his car did not meet minimum post-race weights, causing NASCAR to disqualify Haley, relegating him to 39th.

See also
Justin Haley Disqualified From 17th-Place Finish at COTA

Despite the disqualification, it is not unreasonable to label Haley as the most impressive underdog, as he has been taking RWR to places it has never been. A week after setting the best average running position in RWR’s history, Haley bested it again with a 14.2 ARP prior to the announcement of the penalty.

And in the process, he grabbed the attention of a NASCAR legend in Mark Martin.

Earlier this week, Frontstretch‘s Friday Faceoff column asked if there should be a cause for concern relating to Zane Smith‘s slow start in his rookie campaign. Entering COTA, he had four consecutive finishes of 29th or worse. Fortunately, he finally avoided disaster in Austin, landing in 20th.

Smith is no stranger to success at COTA, winning back-to-back races there the past two seasons in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. That served him well in his Cup debut at the 3.41-mile track. Faced with the daunting task of driving up from his 34th-place starting spot, the 24-year-old fought with poise throughout the race. He eventually cracked the top 15 in stage two, where he spent several laps.

Despite sliding back to 20th by the end, he topped all rookies with Carson Hocevar finishing 23rd and Josh Berry in 36th. It’s the little things that can pull one out of a deep hole, and COTA may have been just what the doctor ordered for Smith.

As far as the international flare went, things were a bit choppy for both van Gisbergen and Kobayashi. Van Gisbergen continually had to fight adversity, struggling with the handling of his car early on. On lap 24, he was busted for speeding on pit road, forcing him to serve a pass through penalty. Then, in the final stage, van Gisbergen reported that he had no first gear, heaping onto his ongoing issues. The current Xfinity rookie finished 21st in his third career Cup start.

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Turn 8, Track Limits Throw Drivers for a Loop at COTA

Kobayashi didn’t find much better fortunes in his second career start. On lap 25, Kobayashi was riding inside the top 20 when he was spun by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a driver he tangled with in his Cup debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last season. On lap 53, he was turned again at the hands of Berry after being on the outside of a three-wide situation. The 23XI Racing driver was scored in 30th at the end.

Outside of racing, fans got a scare when Corey LaJoie fell to the ground after exiting his car following the event. Thankfully, LaJoie was checked and released from the infield care center, and he cited cramping as the reason. He finished the race in 25th after earning a career-high starting spot in fifth.

Meanwhile, the Xfinity race had a pleasant surprise of its own. Making his series debut, Austin Green took the racing world by storm with a seventh-place finish. The 22-year-old’s last name might be recognizable to Xfinity fans, as he is the son of David Green, who won the 1994 series title, and the nephew of Jeff Green, the 2000 series champion. That’s a pretty impressive way to mark the start of one’s NASCAR career.

What They’re Saying

Allmendinger (sixth):

Haley (39th after disqualification) & Smith (20th):

Kobayashi (30th):

Underdog Bracket Challenge

One weekend into the NCAA Tournament, and I have no intentions at revisiting my bracket (it’s ready for the lighter). However, the Underdog Bracket Challenge continued to intrigue with a double-digit seed pulling off another upset and the top seed going out. Take a look at the results and next week’s matchups as the “Final Four” is set.

(8) John Hunter Nemechek defeats (1) Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

(2) Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 defeats (10) Kaz Grala.

(11) Justin Haley defeats (3) Daniel Hemric.

(4) Corey LaJoie defeats (5) Erik Jones.

Semi-finals match-ups at Richmond Raceway:

(2) Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 vs (4) Corey LaJoie.

(8) John Hunter Nemechek vs (11) Justin Haley.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

For the first time since Talladega Superspeedway in April of 2022, MBM Motorsports was on track in a Cup race.

Timmy Hill made his first start in over two years, piloting the team’s No. 66 Amptricity Ford Mustang. And while a 37th-place result wasn’t what they were hoping for, MBM brought a great looking race car to the track.

With the blend of green leaves and slight touches of light blue, this car looked ready to welcome the beginning of the spring season.

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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