Poised for Bristol return, AJ Allmendinger empathizes with Kyle Larson



AJ Allmendinger is making his second appearance with Kaulig Racing this season, but this time, he’s guaranteed to race.

Despite his attempt to qualify for the NASCAR Racing Experience 300 at Daytona International Speedway in February, the No. 16 Chevrolet barely made it out of the blocks for the Xfinity Series time trials once the brakes locked up on the car. With NASCAR reducing the field size to 36, Allmendinger 40th on the speed chart and the team mired in owner points, the affable driver found himself on the outside looking in.

On Monday, Allmendinger rolls off 27th in the Cheddar’s 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“After Daytona, and the mechanical issue we had in qualifying which didn’t allow us to make the race, Matt Kaulig (team owner) and Chris Rice (team president), they were super apologetic that I didn’t make the race. I said it was all good, but they wanted to make it up to me. So I looked at the schedule and said, ‘What about Bristol?’ It was close to home and didn’t require a whole new group on an airplane. 

“So, we planned on it, but we didn’t announce it. Then the pandemic hit. We had planned to do all the speedway and road course races. I told them, ‘If the plans change, I get it. Of course, I want to race, but I want the best for the organization.’ I didn’t want to spread the shop too thin. But Matt Kaulig, being who he is, said, ‘Hell no. We want to race.’ So Bristol was added to the schedule.”

This will be Allmendinger’s Xfinity Series debut on the half-mile bullring. The 38-year-old Los Gatos, Californian has 21 Cup starts at the Last Great Coliseum, with one-top 10 result. Allmendinger admits that getting back in the saddle at Bristol might not have been a prudent decision.

“Why not, Bristol,” Allmendinger said with a laugh. “No practice, starting near the back. Let’s do it. It’s a new challenge. I haven’t been to Bristol in a couple of years—and never in an Xfinity car. But I’ll figure it out as it comes.

“I have a love-hate relationship with Bristol, because if you compare it to Martinsville, I always showed up pumped to go to Martinsville. If you walk into Bristol, even as a fan, you’re always in awe. But you just know, in the Cup race, with 500 laps, it’s an absolute grind. Whether it’s good or bad, you’re always manhandling the race car, and you’re in for a tough night whether the night is going great or whether it’s going bad, you know you’re in for a tough race.”

Still, after seeing how competitive his teammate, Justin Haley, was at Bristol last spring and how Haley and Ross Chastain are both in the top 10 in NASCAR Xfinity Series points, Allmendinger  is stoked for the opportunity. He won in his last Xfinity start—when he raced for Kaulig at the Charlotte Roval last fall. 

Allmendinger feels like he was able to accelerate the growth of the No. 10 team last season—particularly with the road course program—before Chastain took over driving duties this year. While he would not rule out returning to full-time racing, it would depend on the competitiveness of the team as well as the fun factor. For now, he’s found both with Kaulig Racing.

Allmendinger feels fortunate to race on his own terms. Eight years ago, his career was in jeopardy after a failed drug test and the loss of his ride with Team Penske. Though his circumstances were quite different from those of Kyle Larson, who was suspended and fired from Ganassi Racing for using a racial slur, Dinger sees a path for the talented driver’s return.

“I’m not going to speak for Kyle--it would be unfair for me to put into words what he’s feeling,” Allmendinger said. “At the end of the day, it’s the same result—both of us being let go from the race teams we were on. Different situations for sure, but they’re both mistakes that we made that I’m sure if you could take back, you would. But you can’t take it back, so you try to learn from it. You try to be better in life in general.

“Kyle is a great guy. I’ve always liked Kyle Larson. I think he is absolutely one of the most badass drivers we have on this planet in anything. The kid can wheel it. I really believe he’s learned a lot from this, and he’ll come back better. At the end of the day, all you can do is show people that you're sorry, that you’ve learned from it, that you’ve grown from it and you’ll not make the same mistake.”

Allmendinger was one of the lucky ones who worked his way back to NASCAR—and even enjoyed opportunities provided by Roger Penske, where he won races and was nearly victorious in the 2013 Indy 500.  

“Kyle appears to have a great support system around him,” Allmendinger added. "He’ll always have sprint cars to fall back on—he’s already won a World of Outlaws race. That’s fantastic for him that he has an outlet where he can still fill that competitive desire. I truly believe—though I might be wrong—what he’s most passionate about is sprint car racing, and he’ll always have that outlet. 

“Now, will he come back to NASCAR? I think you can look at it two ways. He definitely has the talent. All he needs is someone to give him a chance. He can still be a champion and has the ability to be a champion with the right opportunity. It depends on whether he wants to come back or not. I’m not saying what he did wasn’t a bad thing, but I would imagine he’s learned from it.”

As for keeping entertained during the COVID-19 pandemic, Allmendinger hasn’t done much. His regular hits for NBC Sports’ NASCAR America have been sporadic since everyone is working from home. When IMSA returns, Allmedinger will join the broadcast team. For now, he is co-hosting a show every Wednesday on SiriusXM Radio called Brick by Brick with Jack Arute. 

“But there hasn’t been any racing to talk about,” Allmendinger said. “There will be in less than a week when they race at Texas. It’s been nice that a lot of the drivers have come on the show. Next week we’ll be able to talk about real racing."

 

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