AJ Allmendinger Needs to be a Cup Contender in 2022
“I’m going to go kiss the start finish … no, I’m not going to kiss the start finish line.”
The Brickyard was last weekend, AJ Allmendinger, but who could blame ‘The Dinger’ for losing track of the victories because he is starting to make a habit of doing it in bunches during his second career with Kaulig Racing.
Allmendinger won in the NASCAR Xfinity Series again on Saturday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway, surviving several overtime restarts to win for the third time this season, an accomplishment that makes him an obvious co-title favorite alongside defending champion Austin Cindric.
“AJ! AJ! AJ! AJ!”@AJDinger interacting with the crowd after the win at @MISpeedway. pic.twitter.com/VQSzl3BSIr
The two contenders share identical 8.4 average finishes, and 14 top-5s, even if Cindric has led double the number laps as Allmendinger. Cindric has five victories compared to three by Allmendinger but both campaigns are extremely exemplary.
Cindric will race full-time in the Cup Series in 2022, replacing Brad Keselowski in the flagship No. 2 Team Penske Ford Mustang but there are no shortage of reasons to suggest Allmendinger deserves to join him on the grid.
When Kaulig Racing revealed that it had acquired two charters to race at the Cup Series level next season, it named Justin Haley a full-time driver for one car and Allmendinger to a part-time role in the other — not too dissimilar to his 2021 role on superspeedways and road courses.
Kaulig plans to run Allmendinger back in the Xfinity Series next season, too.
He has already won in Cup this year, emerging victorious in the inaugural road course race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.
Allmendinger has always been something of an undervalued driver, even beyond his obvious road course strengths, and especially during his stint driving the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47.
According to Motorsports Analytics, Allmendinger was an exceptional re-starter from the non-preferred groove to the tune of sixth-best in 2014, sixth-best in 2015, third-best in 2016 and ninth-best in 2017 — skills that are even more valuable today with the choose rule.
That gives him the option to willingly gain positions in exchange for restarting on the non-preferred groove.
In the era of stage racing and increased shorter runs, what Allmendinger continues to do is even more valuable, especially if NASCAR goes through with making the pandemic era competition caution a full-fledged fourth stage.
While Allmendinger was occasionally challenged in completing passes on intermediate tracks during his full-time tenure at JTG, there are two things to consider now:
Allmendinger, even against lesser competition in the Xfinity Series, is a top-five position retainer on intermediate tracks according to Motorsports Analytics. He is also a top-three driver in that website’s Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER), which is a formula designed to determine a driver’s contribution to results independent of equipment quality.
In other words, Allmendinger is a top-three Xfinity Series driver this season, regardless of what Kaulig Racing is giving him to work with.
Now consider that next season, the Cup Series will compete using the Next-Gen car, a platform that borrows heavily from Australian Supercars and GT3, for a schedule that suddenly features five more road courses than what Allmendinger raced while at JTG.
This car and schedule accentuates his positives and diminishes what negatives he previously displayed on intermediates, simply because there are siddenly less of them.
If you’re Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice, making your full-time debut in the Cup Series next season, wouldn’t you take your chances on Allmendinger winning one of the five regular season road course events to make the playoffs?
Allmendinger will also turn 40 in December, placing him in the middle of a driver’s peak performance range, making this the perfect intersection of building a new team and taking advantage of a veteran’s skillset.
It’s just a matter of if Allmendinger wants to race under the pressure of the highest level and if Kaulig can find the resources to make him the other full-time guy.
“I’m retired,” Allmendinger said last week with a smirk that didn’t suggest he was entirely telling the truth.
He then added:
“I will do whatever they want me to do,” Allmendinger said. “I’ve told them that from day one. Whatever they feel like I can help raise the organization and help push it, I’ll do that, whatever that may be. Whatever program we’re on, like I’m enjoying it.”
And Kaulig didn’t shoot it down either.
“Yeah, and we’re working on it, and he does say that, and he has said that, and he truly will,” Kaulig said. “We’d have to make sure whatever the situation is — we would like to run two full-time Cup cars next year, and we’re working out the details as far as drivers and sponsors and just how all of that looks.”
It looks like, with every passing week, that Allmendinger could make them an immediate playoff threat in their first year as a Cup team with the Next Gen.
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