AJ Allmendinger’s Actions at Daytona Made Him Look Like NASCAR’s New Ross Chastain
AJ Allmendinger finished an impressive sixth Sunday in the Daytona 500 for the first race of his return as a full-time Cup Series driver. But it was a move early in the event that initially put him in position for a good finish and displayed a mentality that could help him reach the NASCAR Playoffs.
Allmendinger opened The Great American Race in 29th after he finished 16th in his qualifying race Thursday night. He then lost the draft of the lead pack after the first round of pit stops and was on the verge of going a lap down with only two laps left in Stage 1 and Riley Herbst as his only drafting partner.
Drivers about to be lapped typically move far to one side of the track to get out of the way of the leaders as much as possible. Allmendinger instead tried to block Aric Almirola, who was the lead driver on the bottom lane.
Almirola was able to maneuver around Allmendinger and force him to the middle lane, but Allmendinger had at least broken up the line’s momentum enough that he did not drop immediately to the back of the field and was able to pass Herbst in the process.
The ability to regain lap lost gave AJ Allmendinger the break he needed in the Daytona 500
That was arguably Allmendinger’s most important pass of the race because it put him in the lucky-dog position when the stage ended two laps later, which made him eligible to return to the lead lap during the ensuing caution period.
He ultimately spent only 26.4% of the race in the top 15, but he avoided the four other wrecks leading to a double-overtime restart to finish the event. Allmendinger actually led Lap 189 of what turned out to be a 212-lap race and found himself in the bottom lane as the field took the white flag to begin the final lap. He then narrowly avoided the final wreck that put an end to the race under caution.
All of that was possible because of his aggressive move nearly 150 laps earlier, but it was not without precedent.
Ross Chastain made a very similar block during the spring race a year ago at Talladega Superspeedway. He had lost touch with the lead pack late in Stage 1 and made a block when the leaders approached to lap him with nine laps left in the stage. Chastain did fall a lap down, but his block kept him from falling to the back of the field, and he was able to return to the lead lap at the end of the stage as the first car one lap down.
Chastain was in the top 15 for only 52.1% of the Talladega race, but he had worked his way to the front of the field on the final run and made a pass on the final lap to become the leader for the first time that day and score his second win of the season.
Chastain took some criticism at the time for not pulling over and letting the leaders storm past, but it ended up becoming one of the critical moments in the race that allowed him to race for the victory.
That non-conforming aggression became a trademark for Chastain throughout a season that saw him reach his first Championship 4 and finish runner-up in the championship standings. Chastain didn’t win a bunch of friends from his fellow racers, but he did complete a career-defining season that has now led to a multi-year contract extension to remain the driver of the No. 1 car at Trackhouse Racing.
Allmendinger could be poised to race as Chastain did a year ago
Allmendinger is now in a similar make-or-break type of season with Kaulig Racing. He was a full-time driver in the series for 11 seasons but announced he would retire after the 2018 season.
He ended up still driving a part-time Xfinity Series schedule for Kaulig the next two years and spent 2021-22 as a full-time Xfinity Series driver with a limited number of Cup Series starts each year.
Then, a Cup Series win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2021 and eight top-10s in his 18 Cup Series races a year ago got the noted road-course ace back into the series full-time for 2023 as the pilot of the No. 16 car.
Now, like Chastain, Allmendinger has possibly his last chance to prove his worth as a Cup Series driver. A playoff appearance and maybe a win could keep the 42-year-old in the series for several years to come, but a dud of a season could end his opportunity rather quickly.
AJ Allmendinger is in a position where he can’t afford to race conservatively. His first notable move of the 2023 season showed he’s plenty willing to display the aggression that could both help him win races and be a factor in the playoffs late in the season.