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AJ Allmendinger keeps ‘good vibes’ going in best finish since 2014

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500

MARTINSVILLE, VA - APRIL 03: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #47 Kroger/Butterfinger/Coffeemate Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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It was a good day at Martinsville Speedway for AJ Allmendinger. That was even before he finished second in the STP 500.

“I passed Jimmie Johnson like five times at Martinsville. That’s pretty cool!” Allmendinger declared to Fox Sports 1 after earning his eighth top-five finish in his 10th year of Sprint Cup competition.

After starting sixth Sunday, his best spot on the grid since starting third at Martinsville last fall, Allmendinger kept his JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet firmly in the top 10 all day. His average running position during the 500-lap event was 7.86. He never fell below 12th.

Through six races, including an eighth-place result at Auto Club Speedway, Allmendinger’s average running spot is 19.5.

“We didn’t have great short‑run speed, but after about 30, 40 laps we could really get rolling there,” Allmendinger said. “I was kind of hoping we’d stay green the last 120 laps. I figured that wasn’t going to happen, but I was praying we had a shot at that because I felt like if that happened we had a great chance to win the race.”

The race’s final caution waved with 15 laps remaining. When Jamie McMurray spun from a shredded tire, Allmendinger found himself in third place. Crew chief Randall Burnett chose to stay out as just a few teams took to pit road.

“Randall, for a first‑year crew chief, you wouldn’t really know it,” Allmendinger said. “He’s great on the box. He calms me, which shockingly I don’t know if you guys know that, I probably need that sometimes. It doesn’t seem like he’s only done this for six races.”

When the green flag waved, Allmendinger had his best chance at a win since claiming his first two years ago at Watkins Glen International. A mechanical error derailed a potential winning bid at Sonoma Raceway last year.

With the field behind him impatiently scrambling for position, Allmendinger calmly overtook Brad Keselowski. But the 10-lap shootout to end the day finished with Allmendinger 0.66 seconds behind Busch.

Known primarily for his road-course racing aptitude developed from his open-wheel days, Allmendinger claimed his second runner-up result at Martinsville. The first came in 2012 when Allmendinger drove the No. 22 for Team Penske.

Navigating the short track involves braking patterns similar to those used at WGI or Sonoma -- where Allmendinger is usually considered a threat to win.

“I know the first couple times I came here, I couldn’t figure this place out to save my life,” Allmendinger said of the short track. “It’s just a rhythm racetrack. There’s a fine line between needing to be aggressive enough, using the brakes and the things you have to do and be fast, and then overusing them, and that’s kind of the way road course driving is. It’s always a fine line. You can be aggressive but you’ve got to know that line to where you overstep it.”

Allmendinger never crossed the line and now takes the “good vibe” the team has developed with its consecutive top-10 finishes to Texas Motor Speedway. There, Allmendinger has never finished better than 10th (2009, 2011).

“Texas hasn’t been one of our best racetracks, but I feel like our mile‑and‑a‑half program has definitely improved,” Allmendinger said.

His best finish at 1.5-mile tracks this year is 14th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. At Atlanta Motor Speedway, more similar to Texas, Allmendinger finished 27th, four laps down.

“I’ve never really had great runs there, so I’m always kind of searching to find what I need.”

On Sunday, he didn’t have to search long.

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