By: Ashley McCubbin
Through the first five NASCAR Xfinity Series races this season, A.J. Allmendinger is the only driver to have scored a top-10 in each of the events. He also enters this weekend’s Pit Boss 250 at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) as the defending winner.
NEWS FROM THE PITS caught up with the Kaulig Racing driver to get his perspective on the road course, his season, teammates, and maintaining focus & motivation through the tough moments.
ASHLEY MCCUBBIN: What stands out with COTA compared to other tracks that NASCAR goes to?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I think it’s the length of the lap first of all. It’s very long. It’s unique in the sense of, so you take like a Sonoma that is pretty low speed corners all the way around the racetrack. Even take Road America and the length is probably longer than COTA, the lap times are probably a little bit quicker which means that racetrack is more high speed. A lot of the corners are mid-speed corners to high-speed corners.
COTA is probably unique in the sense that the flow of the racetrack. Very high speed in certain sections. Long straightaways, but into very tight brake zones. The esses you kind of flow a lot of speed through them, so that is what is probably different than every other racetrack that we go to. Those road courses are kind of just one type of racetrack. They’re either pretty high speed, low speed. COTA’s got a little bit of everything there and you know I felt like on the Xfinity race because that was the dry race that I ran in, passing was more difficult than I expected. Track position is even more critical there than I would say at the other racetracks, but that’s probably what is most different out of that racetrack compared to the other ones that we go to.
ASHLEY: Each race last year, you scored a top-10 finish. How much does that help the confidence going into this weekend?
A.J.: I feel like on the Xfinity side of it, this was a race that we learned a lot. We finished second, which was a great run, but we got our butts kicked by Kyle Busch that day and it really made us go back to the drawing board with our road course set ups and say ok we need to do something different, because you know Kyle got in and it wasn’t close really. We could match him on lap times early in a run but by the end of the run he was gone. Felt like this race last year really propelled our road course program on the Xfinity side, made us make a lot of changes. So, I’m really excited to go back to it just to see if it works there.
On the Cup side of it, I just love road course racing. I’m looking forward to the challenge of this new car at a road course for all the reasons that I’ve talked about. Even though we finished fifth there in the wet, that does nothing to translate to the new car, but I just love road course racing. I think this car, especially, is going to be a lot of fun on the road courses. Can’t wait to go attack it.
ASHLEY: So what’s the secret to your road course success, as it seems no matter which track, you’re a driver to watch?
A.J.: A lot of it is my background. It’s what I’ve grown up doing through go-karting and open-wheel racing. When I was in IndyCar, we mainly did road course and street courses. So for sure it’s what I grew up loving and knowing how to do. So when I first got to NASCAR, it was really new to me because I had only been on one or two ovals in my life. So that’s what I had learned about, and then on, it’s been about learning about the stock car and what it takes to go fast, but also save the tires, brakes, and everything that goes along with it. I love it.
I put a lot of effort into it, and I feel now with especially that I’ve done it for so long that I have a good feel what I want with these racecars and we’ve worked hard to get that feeling and work on it.
ASHLEY: Given the solid start that you’ve had to the season so far, what do you feel that you and Kaulig need to do better to get that first victory of 2022?
A.J.: Over the last bit here, at least in my full-time experience with Kaulig, we’ve kind of gone in stages. We’ve gone down a path with our set-ups, and especially last year with no real practice, you could take chances going into a weekend and wanting to try this, but not getting away from the direction we were going as we were having success. We were winning races and running up front and we went down a path, and I feel we lost a little bit of that speed. We were still good enough to run top-five, won a few races at the end of the year, but when it came to the Championship Four in the playoffs, we never had the outright speed to win those races.
That’s something that we worked on going into this year in focusing on areas that we needed speed. We’ve worked hard, and it shows, especially with the poles that we’ve had at Fontana (Auto Club Speedway) and Vegas. Like, we have speed in the racecar, but other issues have cropped up, so now we’re working on those. I think we have the speed in racecar – definitely still going out there and trying to make it better, but we went down a path and now good things are better, but there’s other stuff to fine tune and work on it.
The road course here this weekend at COTA is completely different than anything else that we’re working on, so that’ll be a new challenge, but on the oval side of it, those are things that we keep building on to try and make better.
ASHLEY: It doesn’t matter whether it’s Daytona, or even Atlanta, the Kaulig cars always seem to work together better than other teams, and it doesn’t seem to matter which combination of drivers. What is it about the team culture that seems to allows that to come together?
A.J.: Well, I’ll correct a little bit of that statement – because the drivers do matter, as it what it comes down to at Kaulig Racing is buying into the culture. There’s plenty of teams out there that get on superspeedway races, and don’t work as well together. So the drivers matter and that’s something with Justin (Haley), myself, and Ross (Chastain) – when it was three cars, we worked really well together. Then last year with Jeb (Burton), he was a part of it as well.
This year, with Daniel (Hemric) and Landon (Cassill), they have to come in and they have to buy into it. If they don’t, then we’re not going to be great at working on those race tracks. We have fast racecars – which definitely helps, as its key to have fast cars to go up there and battle upfront, but you have to have the right drivers that buy into the culture, that believe in each other, and that enjoy working together, knowing that, “Hey, of course we want to win the race for ourselves, but if a Kaulig car wins the race, then we’ve all won.”
That starts with Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice, and on down through the team. It’s the driver’s duty knowing that all the work the teams are putting into the cars together, that’s it’s our job to go out there and work together to try and win races. I think we all do that well together.
ASHLEY: Speaking of the team dynamic, you mentioned Daniel and Landon. What’s it’s been like working with them so far this year?
A.J.: I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I think it’s neat that myself, and Landon, and Daniel have all been through the grind of the sport. We’ve at some highs, been at some very lows, and in a way, we know the sport at any point that bury you. It can raise you up and feel great, but it can also bury you. We’re all experienced in that way, and we have a different outlook than maybe somebody that is coming in that’s young into the sport. We’re very thankful for the opportunity and because of that, we get along very well.
It’s been very fun so far, and I think that’s going to grow. It’s not a debate in my head – we’re just going to keep growing as teammates together, and we have a lot of fun on and off the track together. It’s very enjoyable being in the shop, or going to the track, or whatever it may be. I am having a lot of fun with it personally and hopefully they are, too.
ASHLEY: I was going to ask, because I know you always said that you would keep doing this – as long as you’re having fun. So A.J., are you still having fun?
A.J.: Well, I’m enjoying it for sure. I kind of laugh because fun is a relative word – what’s truly fun about it is going out there and winning races and competing, but the team, and I’ve said this so many times – Matt, Chris (Rice), and all the men and woman here, but Matt is the owner and Chris is the boss of everybody here, they allow me to be me. They know I get frustrated a lot. They know I am very hard on myself, and they know I want to go out there and win for everybody because they deserve it as a team. So I take it very seriously, even if not even more, because I know this is a great opportunity.
Hopefully I’m not right at the end of the road. Hopefully I’ve got a few more years, but let’s be honest, it’s getting closer. So I do take it very seriously and when it’s not going well, they let me be me. Fun is relative, but I defiantly enjoy being around everybody here and hopefully we can do this for several more years.
ASHLEY: So when you’re going through the grind, and you get those frustrating moments, how do you feel focused and motivated to keep pushing forward? Because like you’re saying, it’s been a roller coaster to this point for you.
A.J.: The motivation is always there, and the focus is always there. It’s not letting me allow myself to get too low. My wife Tara is the first one to do with that. She does so much for me, for the household, and really allowing me to go play golf a couple times a week to just get away from it and take a break – things like that. Matt and Chris, they’ll pick me right up and say, “Alright, we’re done with the weekend. Let’s go play golf. Let’s go do something. Alright, we’re done. You’re not thinking about it anymore.”
But quite honestly, that’s always been my biggest challenge in life is I’m super hard on myself, because I’m letting everybody down if we’re not winning and things like that. So that’s always going to be my biggest weakness, my biggest challenge. But my thing is the men and woman here, I hope if you ask any one of them that have worked with me, like does he care? They will always say to the full extreme that I care, and they see it on my emotions. Sometimes it comes out the wrong way, but that’s the biggest thing that I’ve always wanted anybody to work with me is that I care about them, care about winning, care about being at my best, because that’s the most important thing to me.
I’m 40-years-old. There was a moment in time that I thought maybe I can change that, and be different, but I am who I am. I am still racing cars professionally and I’ll probably never change because I care that much. That’s probably my best strength and biggest weakness at the same time.