AJ Allmendinger had been fighting for his life, career and livelihood for over a decade and was just burned out.
It was the 2018 Cup Series event at Sonoma Raceway where Allmendinger made a costly rookie mistake he isn’t sure he had ever made before. He had won the opening stage and looked every bit the favorite to win when he missed a shift and broke the motor.
As a road course specialist, it was one of the few opportunities for Allmendinger to win and send his JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 team into the playoffs.
He referenced the mistake several times throughout the summer, saying, ‘I had never made that mistake before’ and ‘it’s still on my mind.’ He was released in favor of Ryan Preece by the end of that season despite having at least two years remaining on his contract.
There were opportunities to race full-time elsewhere in 2019, but Allmendinger just wasn’t ready for the continued commitment, even though he was just 36 at the time.
He is a self-described perfectionist and anything short of that standard weighed heavily on him.
Instead of racing every week for 10 months out of the year, Allmendinger took an IMSA and NASCAR television analyst job for NBC Sports. It kept him in the game and available when Kaulig Racing president Chris Rice invited him to compete part-time in the Xfinity Series with the still developing organization.
Allmendinger has won three times in his 16 appearances for the team over the past two seasons and they’re going full-time in 2021.
“Excited is kind of an understatement,” Allmendinger said. “Just super pumped. First of all, very grateful for Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice and all the men and women at Kaulig Racing for this opportunity because from the first race that I did with them at Daytona in July 2019, they’ve really just made me feel like a really important part of the team. A family member, more importantly.”
The relationship has worked, in part, because the team reignited Allmendinger’s love for the sport. Having equipment capable of winning races and a championship certainly hasn’t hurt.
“I really wanted a shot to go after a championship,” Allmendinger said. “I never really had that in my NASCAR life. Team Penske would have been my best opportunity, but obviously, all the things that happened that I did, took away from that.”
He’s referring to a failed drug test in 2012 for Adderall, that cost him the No. 22 at Team Penske, and resulted in a suspension that derailed his career. That period was hard on him, too, Allmendinger telling USA Today there were times “he didn’t even want to live.”
Penske gave him a chance at redemption with a part-time opportunity across the IndyCar Series, Xfinity Series and the Indianapolis 500. He joined JTG Racing in 2013 and spent the next five years in the No. 47, winning once at Watkins Glen in 2014.
They were competitive in 2016, but the team just couldn’t break into the top-15 with regularity. The pressure to break through the glass ceiling just left Allmendinger weary.
With Kaulig, Allmendinger is a threat to win every time he steps into a race car, and now he feels ready for one last shot at a championship. However, Rice has put a safeguard into place to keep Allmendinger from losing sight of what made him so happy with the team in the first place.
“He made me a deal,” Allmendinger said. “He basically made me make a deal with him. … This isn’t a job, and that’s what he wants me to make sure, that every weekend it doesn’t become a job. This is fun.
“Sure, I put all the pressure in the world on my shoulders whether we have a shot or not. It’s on my shoulders to try to make us better and take that next step. I’m still going to have that to a certain extent.
“But he’s said, if he sees it on my face or in my demeanor or my actions, we don’t need to keep doing this and we can go back to part-time. I made that deal with him. I’m in a good place in my life and I’m enjoying it.”
That culture is important to Rice, and it shows across every facet of the Kaulig Racing organization.
Rice is the son of a Late Model Stock car builder and the general manager of South Boston Speedway in Virginia. The team is owned by a self-made millionaire in Kaulig but operated like a grassroots racing team right out of the 80s.
“That’s 100 percent me,” Rice says. “Matt is giving us all the resources we need to compete, but he wants us to have fun. He allowed me to hire (Late Model Stock champion racer) Alex Yontz as a crew chief and give him a chance that no one else thought he was ready for yet.
“I want us to try a different approach. We wear vests and not the same black suits that everyone else wears. This isn’t a team, but it’s a family. It’s not quite smoking cigarettes in the shop like Junior Johnson, but you’ll see the (No.) 10 crew working on the (No.) 11 car and vice versa.”
And as family should, Allmendinger appreciates the honesty he gets from Rice. He cited the 2019 Xfinity race at Mid-Ohio as one where the boss took the pressure off his team when it otherwise would have been at its highest.
“I put so much pressure going into that race because it’s LeafFilter’s home race and Matt Kaulig’s home race,” Allmendinger explained. “We get to practice and we’re incredibly slow.
“I’m down like, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to win this race, and we have 500 LeafFilter employees here’ and Chris told me ‘We’re not winning this race today without a miracle, and it’s not your fault,’ That made me feel okay. I gave it my best and however we finished, we finished. He really helps with that.”
And in honoring his agreement with Rice, Allmendinger doesn’t view the upcoming season as championship or bust. He isn’t going to make a bold declaration that he needs to win eight races to justify the opportunity.
He is going to enjoy his return to full-time racing and give it his best shot, the results coming secondary to that goal.
“We go win five, six, seven races and we get to (the championship race) and we don’t win the championship then no, it’s not a disappointment,” Allmendinger said. “… You can’t just define it on, okay, we have to win eight races this year otherwise it’s a bad season. It’s about improving and getting better every weekend. And that’s the attitude that we have to have. And I really believe that if we do that, the wins will come.”
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