Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: New Sonoma, Same AJ Allmendinger

Top Dog: AJ Allmendinger

NASCAR wrapped up its FOX Sports portion of the broadcast schedule by heading out west to The Golden State of California for its annual trip to Sonoma Raceway (June 9).

However, this wasn’t the same Sonoma that teams have grown accustomed to over the years.

The track received a repave, its first pavement makeover in over two decades.

That new asphalt produced more grip, higher speeds and one of the wildest Sonoma races we’ve seen in a while. To give you a preview, the first two stages had a combined eight cautions, one short of the track record.

But while there were a lot of new aspects to the weekend, one thing remained the same: AJ Allmendinger‘s success at road course racing.

Allmendinger scored a sixth-place finish after strategy fell his way, allowing him to capitalize on the opportunity.

See also
Sonoma: The Race JGR Would Like to Forget

Starting in 11th, Allmendinger quickly cracked the top 10 before Denny Hamlin‘s engine expired on lap 3 to bring out the caution. By the next caution on lap 15, Allmendinger’s had reached eighth.

After pitting following the second caution, the Los Gatos, Calif. native restarted in 21st, avoided a melee in the esses and finished off the stage in 15th.

Once again, crew chief Travis Mack called Allmendinger to pit road under the stage break, setting him up in 31st for the restart. Chaos ensued with three cautions in just over 10 green flag laps, but the 42-year-old slipped through them all and rejoined the top 15. With several cars short pitting before the end of the stage and Allmendinger passing more cars, he wrapped up the second frame stoutly in fifth.

As strategy placed most of the race’s frontrunners mired back in traffic, track position worked in the No. 16’s favor, as Allmendinger reached third. Then, pit stops by the top two drivers saw the Californian take the lead at his home track for three laps.

Allmendinger made a pit stop and quickly engaged in a fierce battle with Kyle Busch, causing him to lose grip. Still, he cycled to fourth following green flag stops before losing a couple more spots down the stretch. Issues for both Busch and Martin Truex Jr. allowed Allmendinger to capture the top 10 result at his home track.

The showing matches Allmendinger’s best finish of the season and third top 10 in five starts. Just like his 2022 season, Allmendinger is excelling at his part-time Cup Series gig. In that year, he scored eight top 10s in 18 starts, more than his seven in a full-time 2023 campaign.

Allmendinger’s finish marked his 44th road course top 10 across all three series, which leads all drivers. That pales in comparison to the fact that he also leads in wins, podiums and top fives, courtesy of Kaulig Racing’s social team.

So while a lot changed at Sonoma, the same ole road course king still showed up.

How Does It Compare?

Sonoma has been no stranger to strong performances from dark horses. Out of the past five races at the 11-turn track, Allmendinger’s sixth-place result is tied for third. Michael McDowell‘s third-place run in 2022 tops them all, while Matt DiBenedetto started a feel-good story with a fourth-place run in 2019.

Allmendinger matched his own sixth-place run from a year ago, and he topped an 11th-place run by Erik Jones in 2019 and DiBenedetto’s 17th-place showing in 2018 (the 2020 race was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Notable Underdog Runs

Front Row Motorsports has been no stranger to the front at road course races, as McDowell won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last year and competed for the win at Sonoma in 2022. Yet it has slowly brought a 1-2 punch to the twists and turns of NASCAR, as while McDowell finished runner-up Todd Gilliland finished not too far behind in 10th.

Gilliland had a strong run all around, earning a stage point in the opening stint by finishing 10th. And despite the constant stop-and-go of stage two cautions, Gilliland climbed from an early pit stop to earn three more points in eighth to end the second stage.

In the final stage, strategy played out for the No. 38, as Gilliland paced himself in the top 10 for much of the final push to the checkered flag. He briefly slipped out in the closing laps, but Busch and Truex’s misfortunes allowed him to sneak into the top 10.

With FRM announcing a multi-year contract extension for Gilliland, he is looking like the perfect driver to lead the new-look team when McDowell departs for Spire Motorsports. The top-10 result is his second of the season and extends his streak of finishes of 17th or better to five in a row.

Speaking of Spire Motorsports, it was quietly a banner day for the organization as all three of its drivers placed inside the top 20 for the first time. Corey LaJoie pieced together one of his best runs of the season by finishing 11th. LaJoie was the highest of the underdogs to encounter some adversity. After finishing stage one in ninth, LaJoie went for a spin on lap 40 after contact between Austin Cindric, McDowell and Noah Gragson.

LaJoie was able to recover and got as high as second after running long during a green flag pit stop cycle in the final stage. He only dropped to 14th after pitting, allowing him to use fresher tires and match his career-best road course finish.

Zane Smith continues to gain traction on what has been a difficult rookie season, finishing in 16th. Smith showed speed in both practice and qualifying at times, and other than a few physical battles throughout the race, he ran solid for a large portion of the event. The birthday boy earned his second consecutive top 20, the first time he has accomplished that in his young Cup career.

Right behind him in 17th was his Spire teammate, Carson Hocevar. Hocevar reported to the team that he knocked the toe out early on after some contact, but he was able to right the ship and keep his aggressive attack on. Making his debut in the Sonoma Mountains, the 21-year-old secured his eighth top 20 of 2024.

See also
Kyle Larson Snags Sonoma Win

While neither one is an underdog talent-wise, Will Brown and Cam Waters followed Shane van Gisbergen‘s lead and came overseas from the Repco Supercars Championship to make their respective Cup debuts.

Brown, who piloted the No. 33 for Richard Childress Racing, showed remarkable speed in practice, setting the third-quickest lap time. Despite starting in 24th, Brown looked to have the pace to move forward and make passes. Unfortunately, the Australian encountered electrical issues early in stage two that set him back, ultimately finishing three laps down in 31st.

Waters didn’t adapt as well to the car as Brown, but he was able to crack the top 15 at one point before getting caught up in a junkyard in turn 11.

Suspension damage sustained in the incident worsened over time, eventually forcing Waters to retire from the race. He was credited with a 35th-place finish.

What They’re Saying

Allmendinger (sixth): โ€œWe had a really fast Cirkul Chevy. Travis [Mack] did a great job with strategy with everything that happened adversity wise. I thought overall we maximized our day. If everything fell right, we could have and a top-five finish, but weโ€™re happy with the result.โ€

Brown (31st):

Waters (35th):

Who’s Really the Top Dog?

For the second time this year, leading the underdogs on a road course lands Allmendinger at the top of the podium. Gilliland joins the podium for the fourth consecutive race while LaJoie earns bronze for the third time.

Gold: Jones (3x), Hocevar (3x), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2x), John Hunter Nemechek (2x), Allmendinger (2x), LaJoie, Daniel Hemric, Justin Haley, Gilliland

Silver: Gilliland (5x), Haley (2x), Allmendinger (2x), Harrison Burton, Hocevar, Smith, Ty DillonAnthony Alfredo, Nemechek, Hemric

Bronze: Nemechek (3x), Stenhouse (3x), LaJoie (3x), Gilliland (2x), Jones (2x), Kaz Grala, van Gisbergen, Hocevar

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Gilliland’s No. 38 was cooking under the California sun, with Frontline Enterprises on board once again.

With California being a state full of adventure and thrill seekers, something about the orange number and dark tone of the gray and black hit differently this week, combining for one sharp ride.

About the author

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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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