By Jerry Bonkowski
While I like to keep a positive mindset that all drivers are essentially good guys, there are certain instances and circumstances that occur in the world of motorsports where select individuals achieve something so special, so unique, that you can’t help but say how a REALLY GOOD GUY truly deserved good fortune that finally came his way.
Such was the case this past Sunday, when AJ Allmendinger capped off a truly feel-good story that they’ll be talking about in NASCAR for a long time with his win in the first-ever Cup race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Now, while AJ may have surprised some fans with his win, it’s not a surprise in the truest sense of the word. He has been one of the most underrated drivers ever since he came to the Cup – not underrated in terms of talent, but more so underrated in terms of opportunity and the equipment he was forced to use throughout most of his career.
Sure, he raced for Team Penske for about a half-season in the Cup Series before he lost his ride due to violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. He also drove several Xfinity races for Chip Ganassi Racing.
But one thing seemed to mark Allmendinger’s career in NASCAR ever since he chose to leave IndyCar racing after the 2007 season to try and make his mark in the stock car world: other than Team Penske and CGR, Allmendinger spent most of his Cup and Xfinity days driving for teams that – no offense intended – were second-level teams performance-wise for the most part.
Most notably was Richard Petty Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing. Face it, they weren’t up to the task of succeeding like Penske, Gibbs, Ganassi and other top organizations were. Either there wasn’t the best equipment or sponsorship money was more difficult to come by.
But one thing was NEVER in doubt: AJ had a ton of talent.
Prior to Sunday’s win, the man affectionately known as “The Dinger” had just one Cup win to his name. But boy, was it a memorable one, when he beat and banged fenders for the last couple laps with Marcos Ambrose in the unforgettable 2014 finish at Watkins Glen. Taking the checkered flag gave Allmendinger his first – and only to date – appearance in the NASCAR Cup playoffs (he finished 13th).
But as soon as that win was in the books, Allmendinger seemed to once again slip back behind a cloak of lack of notoriety. He remained there until his contract was not renewed by JTG-D after the 2018 season.
When that happened, his future looked murky at the very least. Sure, he did some broadcasting to keep his name out there and to remain relevant, but it wasn’t until Kaulig Racing threw him a lifeline for a part-time Xfinity Series schedule in 2019 that Allmendinger began his racing comeback.
While some may have thought Kaulig Racing didn’t stand a chance, Allmendinger gave it the chance the organization needed. In 2019, he won a race and added another top-five finish in just five starts.
In 2020, he increased his dance card with Kaulig to 11 races and, boom, scored two wins, six top-fives and eight top-10s. That led to a promotion to a full-time slate in 2021 where, thus far in 21 races, he’s earned two wins, 13 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.
He’s also currently ranked second in the Xfinity standings and is one of the favorites in the upcoming playoffs.
As almost a bonus for him believing in Kaulig and Kaulig believing in him, team owner Matt Kaulig tabbed Allmendinger to compete in several road course races on the Cup circuit this season. Thus far, in four races, he has finishes of seventh (Daytona), fifth (Austin), 29th (Elkhart Lake) and, of course, Sunday’s visit to victory lane at the most celebrated and legendary race track in the world.
Next season, Kaulig Racing goes full-time in the Cup Series with Justin Haley as its already-announced lead driver, while AJ will once again run full-time in the Xfinity ranks and likely see an uptick in select Cup starts as well. Or, who knows, maybe Sunday’s win may prompt a new influx of sponsorship and cause the organization to run The Dinger in a second full-time Cup ride instead (hey, you have to admit, it would be a great addition to a heck of a story).
Not bad for a 39-year-old guy who only a few years earlier looked like his racing career may have ultimately been over.
But not anymore. After Sunday, one of the best good guys in NASCAR may just be getting started again – and finally showcasing the large wealth of talent he always knew he had, but just needed the right organization to bring it out in him.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski