AJ Allmendinger's road course prowess has him primed for Sonoma
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
The fun part of the season has begun.
Allmendinger, whose racing roots are in open-wheel cars on road courses, is ready for a stretch of four Cup races over the next 10 events, plus three Xfinity races in that stretch in which he will be turning left and right.
Possibly the track he is most looking forward to comes this weekend at Sonoma Raceway. If any track is a home track for the native of Los Gatos, California, which is 90 miles from Sonoma, this would be it.
That said, it isn’t necessarily the track where he has had the most success. His average Cup finish of 24th at Sonoma is nothing to smile about, though he has often started in the top five, including once from the pole.
Is this the place he would like to win more than anywhere else?
"Beggars can’t be choosers," said Allmendinger, who has 382 Cup starts — and two wins — in his career.
Even so, Allmendinger, whose two career Cup wins came on the road courses at Watkins Glen and Indianapolis, heads into this weekend as one of the favorites, even while he runs a part-time Cup schedule for Kaulig Racing.
"It would be special to win there," he said. "It's for sure my home race when it comes to NASCAR.
"I've always been pretty fast there, but I really have no finishes to show for. ... We’d qualify on pole. We'd run up front. Somehow we’d mess it up. Some of it was me. Some of it was the team."
It's true that Allmendinger does mess up at times. That's just the nature of pushing the car as hard as he does.
But he can often come back from it because of his prowess on road courses. He drove off the course on the pace laps last week at Portland before rallying for the victory, his second of the Xfinity season.
And because his primary focus is the Xfinity car — Allmendinger has no desire to relive the high-pressure, all-consuming pace of scrapping for a spot weekly in Cup, which he did for 12 years — Allmendinger enters these Cup races feeling pressure to win for the team but knowing he won’t be defined by the results.
"The thing that I respect about him the most — and it's in every facet in a race car, whether it's mentally or on the racetrack — he is 100 percent all the time, whether if that's how he races you, him doing a lap," said Cup rookie Austin Cindric, who also thrives at road courses and has had some spirited battles with Allmendinger.
"He is on the limit all the time. And that's tough to do in a Cup race because it's so long."
Every Cup driver can look at data and see where another driver brakes and accelerates. But the seat-of-the-pants feel for how to execute those moves on road courses can’t be seen in a chart.
"You can look at the data and try to do what he does, but you're never going to be AJ, right?" Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate Justin Haley said. "I could probably, if I tried hard enough, qualify similar to him. But where he really excels is how he manages his brakes, how he manages the car throughout the race and the course of a run to put himself in position late in the race.
"A lot of us can find speed, but we use up our brakes and our car doing so. We put a lot of load on our tires. He can have speed and not take the car to its max and be able to get a little bit less out of it for later in the race."
That is what makes Allmendinger dangerous in the Next Gen Cup car, which is much more nimble than the previous Cup car, thanks to a different suspension, bigger wheels and bigger brakes.
Those bigger brakes force drivers to adjust when they brake. For high-speed turns, there are often markers on the fence or the track that give drivers an indication of how far they are from the turn, and Allmendinger noticed a difference in where he was braking at Circuit of the Americas earlier this year.
"In the old car, it was more finesse," he said. "You had to be aggressive with it, but you had to have a lot of finesse because you could wheel hop really bad. ... The biggest thing is the way these things break.
"It is easily on a long straightaway two brake markers [deeper], maybe even three if you're really aggressive on the brakes."
And if anyone is aggressive on the brakes, it’s Allmendinger.
"What makes AJ really good is his ability to be super aggressive and make passes and make things happen and keep that level of intensity up throughout the whole event," said Cup driver Michael McDowell, whose roots are also in road-course racing.
"And also he knows what he needs in the race car and can make the race car better."
At COTA in March, Allmendinger battled Ross Chastain for the win. Allmendinger and Chastain traded paint on the final lap, with Chastain emerging victorious.
"COTA is not really that close to Sonoma when it comes to what the tracks are like, but I always feel confident when we go to road courses, and if we can kind of have our car as competitive as we were at COTA, we will have a really good shot to win the race," Allmendinger said.
In fact, he should have good shots to win all the road courses. He earned Kaulig Racing’s first Cup victory last year, when he captured the trophy in the first Cup race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Granted, he needed Chase Briscoe to take out Denny Hamlin on the final lap to capture the win, but he was in position to capitalize.
"I don't think it changes the race team by any means, but in a way, there's just not that monkey sitting there going, ‘OK, are you ever going to win the Cup Series?’" Allmendinger said of the win’s impact on the organization, which entered full-time Cup competition this year in addition to its Xfinity Series effort.
"Like, that's done now. Of course you want a lot more, but that's something that can't be taken away from us."
What to watch for
With the return of the "chute" after the cars go up the hill at Sonoma, instead of doing the downhill/uphill "carousel" portion, look for drivers to try to set up some passes in and out of the chute.
Another element to watch, as they enter the chute and often get the wheels up on the curb as part of the right-hand turn, is that the rumble strips on their left exiting the turn have been replaced with a concrete patch. NASCAR was concerned about the Next Gen car having an issue with the rumble strips, either bottoming out or getting out of control.
Drivers and teams were given enough notice that they have the concrete patch in the simulator, so they should have a good idea of how much of it they can use and how it will set up momentum prior to the right-hander that takes them downhill.
Thinking out loud
With six road-course races on the schedule, it’s time for NASCAR to start using local yellows. The caution laps on road courses are way too long to clean a little debris or give a car a push.
Other forms of motorsports use local yellows — in which drivers are not allowed to pass in the area but can resume racing once past the incident — without any issues. Certainly NASCAR could figure out if a safety vehicle can get to the area with or without a full-course caution and slowing the pace to a crawl.
If NASCAR can enforce track limits in select corners, it can enforce a no-passing zone in the area of a local yellow.
They said it
"The sport is self-policing. And when you least expect it and when it means the most is when it comes back around." — Denny Hamlin
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!