NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: AJ Allmendinger, Erik Jones Highlight Indy Surprises

The Setting

Ask anyone in the racing community what one of the most surreal moments is in the world of motorsports and many will likely tell you about the time they entered Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. IMS is one of the most historic and iconic tracks not only in America but also the entire world. NASCAR has been gracing the yard of bricks since 1994, adding to some of the best memories fans carry from 100+ years of open-wheel racing at the track.

This time, however, things looked a little different.

With several road courses added to the 2021 schedule, Indy became a recipient of a road course date on its infield layout. It was the first time NASCAR tackled the rights and lefts of the prestigious track in an attempt to retool its Indy tradition. Several drivers voiced frustrations about the crown jewel race of the Brickyard 400 being taken away, though they still admitted it would be special to kiss the bricks.

Entering into a weekend with plenty of unknowns and varying expectations, it was a rare chance to see NASCAR practice and qualifying during the COVID-19 pandemic. That, of course, created an opportunity for a few of the underdogs to show their road course skills by snagging top-20 starting positions for Sunday’s race (Aug. 15).

Daniel Suarez led the group by flexing his road racing muscles with a stellar fifth-place starting position. He was followed by fellow underdogs AJ Allmendinger (eighth) and Michael McDowell (12th) inside the top 20. Then came the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard itself which produced drama, chaos, survival and a magical moment at the drop of the checkered flag.

Top Dog: AJ Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger’s career has been the perfect definition of a rollercoaster. After enduring subpar seasons at Red Bull Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and Team Penske in the Cup Series, he won two races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Penske in 2013. A year later, he earned a long-awaited triumph with JTG Daugherty Racing in Cup after an epic duel with Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen International. Those who remember can still recall the excitement Allmendinger expressed that day.

But the ‘Dinger’s time atop the NASCAR mountain was short-lived; that would be his only postseason appearance in Cup. By the end of the 2018 season, JTG released him just three years into a five-year contract.

Enter Kaulig Racing, which hired Allmendinger to run part-time in 2019, and a win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL was enough to pull him back for 2020. That season, he won at Atlanta Motor Speedway and successfully defended his win on the ROVAL. In return, Kaulig gave him a full-time gig for the 2021 season and a part-time ride in the team’s No. 16 Cup car. In NXS, Allmendinger sits second in points with two wins, further validating the team’s decision to hire him.

Sunday, in just his fourth Cup start for Kaulig this season, the ‘Dinger took it one step further. He scored his second career victory and first for the Cup side of the organization.

“I mean, this is unbelievable,” Allmendinger said after his second career Cup victory. “In my wildest dreams, I could never imagine the way that just played out. Matt Kaulig… he’s almost in tears. […] We had to fight hard.

“It was survival of the fittest. We probably had like an eighth-, 10th-place car, [we] sped on pit road. I thought we were going to finish 12th to 15th, and then those restarts were just insane. It’s great when you have a car owner that just says, ‘go get me trophies.’ He doesn’t care if that thing is torn up.”

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The 'Pure Enjoyment' of AJ Allmendinger's Indianapolis Cup Win

Was it survival of the fittest? The race itself had the feels of the 2017 Brickyard 400, an event that featured several red flags for rain and multi-car crashes. In this one, a caution for debris with less than 10 laps to go ignited all the carnage. On the green-flag restart, curbing in turns 5-6 pulled up and several drivers were involved in a heavy crash. Then, another pileup occurred in the same spot moments later.

Allmendinger brought his No. 16 Hyperice Chevrolet down pit road after the debris caution, falling to 17th. However, the two crashes brought him up to sixth and then third. Chaos ensued on the final restart between leaders Denny Hamlin and Chase Briscoe, allowing Allmendinger to slip through and claim the upset victory.

It was only Kaulig Racing’s seventh Cup start and the first time a non-chartered car visited victory lane since the charter system was formed in 2016.

Diving Deeper: Erik Jones & Other Cup Success Stories

Erik Jones had a much-needed weekend in his No. 43 Petty’s Garage Chevrolet. The Byron, Mich. native scored a seventh-place finish, his third top 10 of the year and first since the Bristol dirt race back in March.

Jones earned points in stage one after staying out to record a fourth-place stage result. From there, it was a wild day, much like it was for most drivers. On the pileup with six laps to go, Jones radioed he had hit oil and spun out. Luckily, no damage was inflicted from the spin. He maneuvered his way through the second pileup and was able to recover from the drama to record a top 10.

“It was a major day of attrition for us in the Petty’s Garage Chevy,” Jones said following the race. “We didn’t really have the car we needed but kind of stuck with it all day and things played out for us, and guys were getting into wrecks and into trouble and making a lot of crazy moves.

“We just stuck through it and stayed on the straight and narrow and kept our car fairly clean and came home with a seventh. We’ll take a top 10 any day and hopefully, it’ll be a good stretch for us coming up with some good tracks for me and some good tracks for Richard Petty Motorsports and keep this string of good runs going.”

The finish was important as the 25-year-old seeks to lock up an extension for the 2022 season with RPM. FOX Sports tweeted on August 15 Jones said he was close to getting a deal done.

Meanwhile, the chaos of the race also played in favor of Justin Haley. Haley is Allmendinger’s teammate in Xfinity at Kaulig Racing but drives for Spire Motorsports in the Cup Series part-time. In 2022, he is slated to move to Cup full-time with Kaulig. Haley’s eighth-place result was his best since an 11th-place run at Talladega Superspeedway for Spire last season.

Bubba Wallace endured a roller coaster day in his No. 23 McDonald’s Toyota. After steadily working his way up the leaderboard in the final stage, Wallace also had several close calls. A pit stop put him behind the first massive crash with six laps remaining, and he was able to avoid it. But on the restart, entering turns 5 and 6, he made an off road excursion to avoid yet another pileup.  He was penalized for missing the chicane and suffered minimal damage to the splitter but likely preferred that over being involved in the crash. The quick action allowed him to salvage a decent result in 13th, his first top 15 since Atlanta.

Wallace’s team, 23XI Racing circulated in the silly season news once again this past week. Pockrass tweeted about the possibility of the team merging with Front Row Motorsports or acquiring a charter to run a second car next season. There has been a wide perception that clearly points to Kurt Busch obtaining the second car at 23XI as the team seeks a charter.

Haley’s teammate, Corey LaJoie, had a Monster Jam moment in the race as well. A lap prior to the first pileup, many were focused on Martin Truex Jr.’s spin coming off the turns 5 and 6 chicane. NBC would later go on to show that more action took place deeper in the field. LaJoie was entering the chicane nearly three-wide, forcing him to back out. He missed the chicane and hit the curb, sending his car airborne in Dukes of Hazzard-like fashion.

The impact pushed LaJoie’s splitter up, making it look more like a shovel than a splitter on the front. Despite the damage, the driver of the No. 7 surged on to record a solid 16th-place result. The finish is his best showing since Nashville Superspeedway in June, where he ran 15th.

When an eventful race with several pileups occurs, it usually allows a driver in severely underfunded equipment to have a career day. That was the case for Rick Ware Racing’s Josh Bilicki. He survived the wreckfest at the end to record an 18th-place finish, his first career top 20 as well as a career-best showing in the Cup Series.

Bilicki was one of several drivers to pull double duty this weekend, driving the No. 52 for RWR Sunday and piloting the No. 07 for SS Green Light Racing on Saturday. He earned a 25th-place finish in that event. Bilicki had to survive in his own right as well, spinning twice, including a spin into the tire barrier during the crash that spurred the first red flag.

Other Dogs

Unfortunately, two of the Cup Series’ top underdogs this season did not make it through the turmoil. When William Byron spun off turns 5 and 6 with six to go, it was like several other drivers followed him right over the edge of a cliff. The damage to the curbing caught Suarez in the mess, destroying his nose and relegating him to a 37th-place finish.

It has been a rough latter half of the summer for Suarez. The Monterrey, Mexico native has finished 31st or worse in four of the past five races, with a 20th at New Hampshire being the lone light in this dark stretch.

“Somebody wrecked the lap before,” Suarez said following his misfortunes. “I didn’t know who it was. But the lap before, I went through fine. I was on my line. I was making sure I was on the right line because I wanted to keep that car on the right side. I was on the regular racetrack and I hit something almost like the curb was on the racetrack. I have no idea. I haven’t seen the replay really, I just know that the curb came apart.”

McDowell was seemingly poised to earn his sixth top 10 of the year to stretch his career-best in that category. The FRM driver escaped through the first pileup to land inside the top 10 but took flight after hitting a section of curbing left behind. He spun out of control and was T-boned by Austin Dillon, ending his day. The result was a 30th-place finish, not what a playoff driver was looking for to gain momentum entering the postseason.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Rick Ware Racing threw it back to the 1990s this weekend with a tribute to the sitcom Saved by the Bell. The car also honored the late series star Dustin Diamond, who passed away in February due to stage 4 lung cancer. Diamond was a friend of Dan Block, who is the president of Bilicki’s sponsor, Insurance King.

What to Expect Next

Cup and Xfinity series drivers head to Michigan International Speedway next weekend. For the Cup Series, it’s the second-to-last race of the season, while Xfinity still has five more races to set its playoff field.

Meanwhile, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be in Missouri for their playoff opener at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway on Friday, August 20.

What They’re Saying

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: INDIANAPOLIS

 

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Michael M

Glad for Eric Jones. He’s a great race car driver, and if RPM had the super team $$$ he would be up there going for top 5s & wins.

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