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Friday 5: Portland ‘will always be a special place’ to AJ Allmendinger

The memories remain fresh to AJ Allmendinger 16 years later.

The last time he was at Portland International Raceway, Allmendinger won his first Champ Car race and shared the podium with one of his best friends and one of his toughest competitors.

Allmendinger returns to the 1.97-mile road course for Saturday’s inaugural Xfinity Series race there. He arrives as the series points leader.

Allmendinger says he remembers the events around that Portland Champ Car race in June 2006 “like yesterday.”

It started with fellow competitor Paul Tracy, who had supported a teen-aged Allmendinger in go-kart racing, telling Allmendinger he heard that his friend was about to lose his Champ Car ride.

Allmendinger soon did. It wasn’t long before he was contacted by Forsythe Racing about a ride but was told that it might not happen for a week or so. The timetable accelerated. Forsythe Racing let go one of its drivers and hired Allmendinger the week of the Portland race.

At ease with the new team, Allmendinger was fast in practice and qualifying. He started the Portland race second, took the lead after the green flag and surrendered it only during green-flag pit cycles.

His only concern came from close friend Justin Wilson.

“I had gotten out to a decent sized lead and then J Wil (Wilson)kind of ran me down through traffic,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “I remember thinking, ‘Of course, anybody but J Wil.’ It was good and bad. We had so much love and respect for each other, I knew he wasn’t going to come barreling down the inside and take me out. But I was like, ‘Man I’d rather take Sebastian (Bourdais, the two-time reigning series champion then) at this point.’

“It was surreal to be able to win the first race there. It was Father’s Day and my dad was there. It will always be a special place to me.”

Allmendinger won by 5.4 seconds over Wilson. Bourdais, who went on to win four consecutive series titles from 2004-07, placed third.

Sharing a podium with Wilson carries extra meaning for Allmendinger. Wilson died a day after he was struck in the head by debris during the August 2015 IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway.

“I truly felt like — and this is the type of the person he always was — of course he wanted to win the race, but I almost felt like he was happier that I won than if he had won it,” Allmendinger said. “At least that’s the way he acted toward me. That was really special.”

Wilson’s excitement was evident as soon as the race ended.

“As I was getting out (of the car), he had parked and immediately come over,” Allmendinger said. “The guy that he was, he let, of course, my family and the team (get to Allmendinger first).

It also was meaningful for Allmendinger to be on the podium with Bourdais after beating him.

“He was the guy to always beat in Champ Car; Newman-Haas was the team to beat,” Allmendinger said. “It was one of those things, Sebastian, for sure, hated not winning because he won so much in Champ Car. Anytime he didn’t win, he was pissed off.

“But there’s pictures of us, him dumping champagne into my pocket. Stuff like that where I even felt like, ‘OK, he’s happy for me. As mad as he probably is about not winning.’

“Looking back on those photos and just sharing moments like that on the podium, that was really special. I couldn’t imagine two better guys (to share the podium) with at that point.”

Allmendinger seeks to make more memories this weekend. Should he win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, it would mark his third consecutive road course victory, tying Terry Labonte for the most Xfinity road course wins in a row. A victory also would give Allmendinger a win in six of the last 14 Xfinity road course events.

COTA Xfinity race

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 26: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Nutrien Ag Solutions Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pit Boss 250 at Circuit of The Americas on March 26, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

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The 40-year-old has seen his career revived since joining Kaulig Racing in 2019.

“NASCAR is unique,” said Allmendinger, who also will drive for Kaulig Racing in Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

“In my head it’s the only top-tiered sanctioning body that has different levels that you can drop down and still race. Like (two-time NTT IndyCar Series driver) Josef Newgarden is not going to drop back down to Indy Lights if Penske, all of a sudden, starts struggling. F1 guys are not going to drop down to F2 and F3, things like that.

“I think sometimes in the outside world people don’t look at it and fully understand what the Trucks and the Xfinity Series is. For sure, they’re still a development series to get the young guys into Cup, but it’s also really competitive.”

And Allmendinger has held his own. Since 2020, Allmendinger has won eight of 57 Xfinity races (14%) and scored 30 top-five finishes (52.6% of his starts in that time).
“It’s not even always about winning, it’s trying to run up front,” he said. “When you have to do it 38 weeks of the year, it can become miserable, at least for me.”

“I used to always talk to David Ragan and I would always laugh. He either fakes it well or this is true. David used to always talk about, yea, at the racetrack he would be mad and all that, but when he walked into his house that week was over and he was OK, he was done.

“I don’t know how to do that. Believe me, I’ve been talking to my wife Tara about it over the last couple of weeks because in the Xfinity Series we’ve been finishing decent and we’ve got the points lead, but we haven’t been as competitive as we want.”

That’s something Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice told NBC Sports last month at Darlington Raceway even after the team’s cars finished sixth (Landon Cassill), eighth (Allmendinger) and 10th (reigning series champion Daniel Hemric).

NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - AUGUST 15: (L-R) Chris Rice is the President of Kaulig Racing , AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Hyperice Chevrolet, and Matt Kaulig, owner of Kaulig Racing celebrate on the yard of bricks after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 15, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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“I think some of the rule changes that were implemented in the offseason … we just haven’t caught back up,” Rice said then.

“We’re not laying down. … We’re going to work hard to get it fixed before we go to the playoffs. It’s just bad because we only go to Texas (and Charlotte) and then we hit a stretch of road courses and different style of racetracks.

“Hopefully, by the time we get back to the mile and a halves after Texas that you’ll see a difference in our cars, because we’re really going to put a big push on trying to get better on these style (of tracks).”

Although JR Motorsports placed three cars in the top four at Charlotte, including winner Josh Berry, Allmendinger saw positives after his 19th-place finish. Allmendinger’s finish was hurt by a tire going down and hitting the wall. He finished two laps down.

“Charlotte was finally the first kind of bad luck that caught us out,” Allmendinger said. “We had kind of been playing with fire for the last few weeks. The funny part of it is — this is the way auto racing is — it was actually, probably one of our better races in (terms) of speed on a mile-and-a-half racetrack.

“We weren’t going to win. The JR (Motorsports) cars have, for sure, found something and they are succeeding. … We had tried some new stuff going into Charlotte, and I felt like we actually made gains.”

2. Work to do

Although Alex Bowman has scored nine top-10 finishes, including a win, in the last 12 races, he’s looking for better results.

“I feel like the stat sheet probably looks pretty consistent, (but) we’ve definitely had a rough couple of weeks,” Bowman said. “Texas wasn’t great (sixth in the All-Star Race), Kansas wasn’t amazing (ninth) and Charlotte (10th) was pretty rough. Just got to keep working at it.

“I think we’ve learned a lot. We were awful in Darlington (29th due to an accident). I feel like we learned a ton from that race. Just being able to go back to the simulator afterwards and identify things and kind of go there.

“It could always be worse. I feel like the summer has always been rough on us. We’re just doing our best to put together the best races that we can. Unfortunately, the ones lately haven’t been great, but we’ve had a lot of really fast race cars this year, too.”

Hendrick Motorsports will field a car for Bowman in one Xfinity race this season. He will compete in the Indy road course event, the day before the Cup race there in July. He said running in the Camping World Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas helped him in the Cup race. He finished second in the Cup race.

“I felt like I did a poor job at COTA last year and needed to be better,” he said. “We ran the Truck and had a really good day on Sunday. Hopefully, more of that same there.”

3. Can the streak continue?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Christopher Bell each have finished in the top 10 in the last four races, the best active streak in the series.

Stenhouse’s streak comes after he had finished 21st or worse in eight consecutive races.

“We were in a valley but we were kind of hanging our hats that we had good races and good speed,” he said. “We just didn’t have those finishes to go along with the effort that the team was putting in at the racetrack and the shop.”

All-Star Race

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - MAY 21: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger/Wise Chevrolet, looks on during the elimination bracket qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway on May 21, 2022 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Stenhouse classifies World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway as a short track even though it is a 1.25-mile track. He classifies it that way because the braking drivers do in Turns 1 and 2 is similar to what they do at Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond — all tracks 1 mile or less.

Stenhouse notes that JTG Daugherty Racing’s short track program has struggled, so his goal is more modest this weekend.

“Going to Gateway this weekend, we’re not shooting for a top 10,” he said. “I feel like the way our short track program started this year, if we could make some improvements and have a top-15 car, I think that would be a win.

“If something happens like at the end of the Coke 600, you never know what kind of finish you can get out of it. We’re just trying to make sure we stay consistent and keep executing like we have been.”

Stenhouse’s hot streak has helped him go from 31st to 24th in the points. Even with five top-10 finishes this season, he hasn’t scored as many points as he did last year when he had only one top-10 finish through the first 14 Cup races. Stenhouse had 281 points at this time last year. He has 267 points this year.

“I probably feel better about this year, just knowing that at tracks we were capable of winning, Daytona and Atlanta, we put ourselves in the position that we needed to be in when chaos broke loose,” he said, alluding to accidents in both events. “We got a top 10 at (Auto Club) and ran in the top five.

“We were top 10 at Vegas and had that engine issue. I felt like COTA we were good on the long run and felt like we could have finished top 15 (before a drivetrain issue led to a 37th-place finish) … so I feel good about where our road course program is going into Sonoma in two weeks.”

4. Taking away the positives

Cole Custer was in position to score his first top-10 finish of the season when last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 went to overtime. Custer restarted seventh. He was 10th when he was collected in a multi-car crash triggered after contact between Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson at the front.

Custer’s car could not continue and he finished 21st. It marked his fifth consecutive result of 15th or worse.

“You just have to keep grinding,” said Custer, who is 27th in the points, of his predicament. “It’s a really long year and you just have to stay at it and keep working with your team and get your cars better and go week-by-week.

“But I think the biggest thing from last week is that we can take a lot of positives and a lot of momentum from that. I mean, being able to run up there in the top five and have a shot to win the race at the end, that makes you pumped to go to the track the next week.

“I think we’re going in the right direction, it’s just a matter of cleaning some things up and having some good luck.”

That’s something he and his Stewart-Haas Racing team haven’t had.

He ran in the top 10 for much of the race at Circuit of the Americas and spun off course on a restart with less than 10 laps left. He finished 23rd.

Custer started third, ran in the top five for the first two stages at Martinsville before a penalty for an uncontrolled tire put him in the back of the field. He never recovered, finishing 21st.

And there was Coca-Cola 600 result.

“We’ve had tires roll away, we’ve had motors blow, and we’ve gotten wrecked I think six or seven times, so it seems like one thing after another,” Custer said. “But if you bring fast cars to the racetrack, it’ll eventually turn around,” he said.

5. Inaugural Cup race winners

With Cup heading to World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway for its inaugural race there, here is a look at drivers who have won inaugural Cup races since 2000:

2021 Indianapolis Road Course — AJ Allmendinger

2021 Road America — Chase Elliott

2021 Nashville — Kyle Larson

2021 Circuit of the Americas — Chase Elliott

2021 Bristol Dirt — Joey Logano

2020 Daytona Road Course — Chase Elliott

2018 Charlotte Roval — Ryan Blaney

2011 Kentucky — Kyle Busch

2001 Kansas — Jeff Gordon

2001 Chicagoland — Kevin Harvick