You know, I bet a lot of people who don’t keep up with the Xfinity were surprised to see A.J. Allmendinger’s name being brought back up again. Winning this week at Las Vegas probably was the first time many fans had thought of him in a long time. Allmendinger has found himself on the brink of retirement and is now looking to reboot his career down in the Xfinity Series, which is proving to be a successful endeavor.
Allmendinger is a really interesting driver prospect, even to this day. At, 39-years old he may be the best driver not in the Cup Series, and while he’ll never be at the top of anyone’s prospect list due to his age, he should be.
You may be asking, why would anyone consider A.J. Allmendinger a Cup Series prospect at this point? He had an 11-year career in Cup already. The issue is Allmendinger is a unique case in NASCAR history, one where a prospect was never truly a prospect and a driver was never able to reach their full potential.
Back in 2007, Toyota came to NASCAR and began putting together a small number of initial teams to field entries in the Cup Series. One of those teams was Red Bull Racing, owned and operated by the energy drink behemoth.
They started out with two cars, one drove by veteran Brian Vickers who was coming off a season where he got his first win with Hendrick Motorsports. Then there was A.J. Allmendinger; a guy who nobody had ever heard of before, but he had a cool name. The reason nobody had heard of him before was that he had only participated in three-truck races prior to making his first start in the Cup Series.
Prior to that, he was racing in open-wheel leagues, but not Indy Car or Formula 1. No, Allmendinger had only driven in champ cars. While he was successful in open-wheel, we’ve seen what happens when drivers who are at the top of the open-wheel world try to dive into NASCAR full throttle without any development. It never worked out, not for a single open-wheel driver. It wasn’t because they weren’t talented or couldn’t drive, but driving stock cars is just a different and by all accounts more difficult animal.
Why Red Bull chose to put Allmendinger in the car before he was ready is a mistake that is beyond ridiculous and that rookie season he didn’t qualify for 19 races and only averaged a finish of 31.6. His second season saw improvement, but it was still nothing compared to what a capable Cup Series driver should be able to do. This was further proven by his teammate posting much better numbers, though his were nothing to write home about either.
Red Bull soon dropped the driver they rushed out of open-wheel and into the top division of stock car racing. Discarded him like he was a failed science project and moved onto Scott Speed, another open-wheel driver they took little to no time developing; another career ruined by Red Bull. While Allmendinger would be free from the horribly run development of Red Bull, the damage was already done. Allmendinger had committed to NASCAR, but his confidence was shaken and he still was far from being the caliber of driver he needed to be.
From here on out, Allmendinger’s career had its ups and downs. He actually ran decently at his next team which was an underfunded Richard Petty Motorsports. His best years in NASCAR came here where in three seasons he amassed 4 top fives and 24 top tens. While this might not seem impressive, he outran any season that Aric Almirola was able to produce in that car after him.
His performance at Richard Petty Motorsports garnered him the attention of Roger Penske who offered him a ride in the #22-car. This was where his career took its downturn. While he exceeded expectation driving for an underfunded team in RPM, he put up lowly stats driving for what would’ve been considered top-tier equipment. Why this happened nobody knows, but it can be speculated that Allmendinger was dealing with his own set of demons off the track as he was suspended mid-way through the year after failing a drug test that was later revealed to be due to Adderall.
This led him to JTG Daugherty Racing where he’d spend a majority of his career in an almost standstill fashion. He went from growing as a driver and getting better to becoming a glorified road course ringer. The kind of driver that circled four dates on his calendar and only strode for success when it was convenient. Whether this was Allmendinger’s decision or JTG Daugherty’s, it seemed that his development had reached as far as it was going to go.
After six years at JTG Daugherty and earning his first Cup victory at Watkins Glen, Allmendinger stepped away from the Cup Series and began a part-time career in the Xfinity Series driving for Kaulig Racing. It was here he has finally gotten his true second chance. He wasn’t racing just for the road courses, Kaulig had finally restarted his development on all forms of race tracks.
Last year he scored his first NASCAR win on an oval at Atlanta. On Saturday, he got his second at Las Vegas. Kaulig Racing has given him the opportunity to race a full season in Xfinity to prove what he’s able to do.
It’s 2021, and A.J. Allmendinger is no longer an open-wheel kid trying to adapt to stock car racing, nor is he a road course ringer. He is now 39-years old and rebooting himself in the Xfinity Series as an all-around driver capable of driving on any track. His time in NASCAR has shown he has potential. Compared to other open-wheel crossovers like Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Danica Patrick, and Sam Hornish Jr. he outdrove all of them in lesser equipment.
Despite Red Bull Racing essentially throwing him into the lion’s den with a Lady Gaga meat dress on, he still found a way to survive in the sport and adapt to a form of racing that many have failed to ever fully grasp. In 2021, he looks like an all-around driver and capable of competing in the Cup Series full time.
Kaulig Racing has been rumored to jump up into the Cup Series in 2022. If that happens, A.J. Allmendinger has positioned himself to be back in the Cup Series and be better than he was when he left it.