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AJ Allmendinger remembers special day with Darlington throwback

AJ Allmendinger

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - APRIL 11: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Ellsworth Advisors Chevrolet, waits on the grid prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Cook Out 250 at Martinsville Speedway on April 11, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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Nearly seven years later, it’s still sweet for AJ Allmendinger.

On Aug. 10, 2014, Allmendinger claimed his lone NASCAR Cup Series win at Watkins Glen International after a thrilling battle with fellow road course ace Marcos Ambrose.

That win is being commemorated with Allmendinger’s throwback paint scheme for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

His No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, which starts on pole, will mimic the JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet he took to victory at the Glen.

The gesture was a surprise for Allmendinger, one that was deeply appreciated.

"(Team owner) Matt (Kaulig) and Chris (Rice) asked me if I wanted to do a throwback and I said, ‘Well, if it’s something important to the team or a sponsor that we have or to Matt personally, sure,’” Allmendinger said in a Wednesday teleconference.

“But for me, it wasn’t that big of a deal. For them to surprise me like that ... Really show how they appreciate (me) and how important I am to the team, to go through all the work to talk to (JTG Daugherty Racing co-owners) Tad and Jodi (Geschickter) and go through the steps they had to do to get the OK when it came to the logos and everything - that meant a lot.”

For Allmendinger, the Watkins Glen win marked the end of a two-year saga that saw him lose his full-time ride at Team Penske after failing a drug test, spend 2013 between part-time rides in Cup, Xfinity and IndyCar, and then restart his full-time Cup career with JTG Daugherty Racing in 2014.

At Watkins Glen 2014, a string of late yellows set the stage for Allmendinger and Ambrose to have it out in a two-lap sprint to the finish. Ultimately, Allmendinger took the checkered flag to complete his comeback.

And now, this weekend’s throwback has brought it all back.

“When you’re at the elite level in any form of motorsports, whether it’s NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula 1, to be able to do that especially with a smaller team like we did with JTG - there were so many people on the team that it was their first Cup win ever,” Allmendinger said about that day.

“And the way it went down, to have to lay it all on the line against Marcos Ambrose, who I always thought was one of the best we ever had when it came to road course racing - it’s always special.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go back and watch the video every now and then when I need that little pick me up to go out there and know I can get the job done.”

Allmendinger acknowledges that there’s a similar “family” vibe between JTG Daugherty Racing then and Kaulig Racing now.

But there’s a key difference with himself.

In 2014, he fretted over restarting his career and keeping it alive. Now, he’s unencumbered by worries of the future.

“This side of it with Kaulig Racing - to me, it’s a bonus because I didn’t expect it initially,” he said. “Matt has so much fun with it and Chris Rice has so much fun with it, and that trickles down into the race team. Yeah, the ultimate goal - we’re out there to win. But it’s kind of a more loose feeling about it.

“We know we’ve got each other’s backs and that makes it a fun atmosphere, in that sense. ... I don’t really look towards next season and what that might look like.”

Having competitive race cars brightens his outlook even more. Allmendinger clinched a playoff berth with a win at Las Vegas and has posted three additional top-five finishes in the four races since.

Darlington will be a stiff test. Allmendinger hasn’t raced there since 2018 and he admits it’s been one of his worst tracks (average finish of 26.1 in 11 Cup starts).

But knowing he has race-winning equipment, Allmendinger is meeting “The Lady in Black” with confidence.

“We’re at the point now that I feel like when we show up at the race track, we are one of the organizations to beat,” he said. “That makes it very enjoyable when you show up to each race track.”