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Jeff Gordon: Allmendinger the one to beat today at Sonoma

Dinger sonoma quals 2015 getty

He grew up not far away, long has considered Sonoma Raceway his home track and spent a great deal of his time there as a fan while growing up. Later as a competitor, he posted some very good results on the 12-turn layout.

While that certainly would describe Jeff Gordon, who will make his 23rd and final career start Sunday at Sonoma, it also describes AJ Allmendinger.

The pole-sitter for today’s Toyota/SaveMart 350, Allmendinger would like nothing more than to win in front of his hometown fans and friends, just as Gordon has done five times.

Having grown up about 90 miles away in San Jose, Calif., Allmendinger is one of the better road-course drivers in Sprint Cup. His breakthrough victory in NASCAR’s premier series occurred last August at Watkins Glen International, where he held off Marcos Ambrose in a classic battle.

Allmendinger has a very good chance to replicate that success Sonoma. This will be his first start from the pole since April 2012 (Kansas Speedway) and his first pole on a Cup road course.

“We know if we go do our job, and I go do my job, and we have solid pit stops and we just take care of business, at the end we should give ourselves a chance and that’s all we can ask for,” Allmendinger told Fox Sports 1 after Saturday’s qualifying session.

With Ambrose returning to his native Australia to race V8 Supercars, Allmendinger has been elevated to the driver to beat on road courses such as Sonoma.

So says Gordon, the all-time road-course winner in NASCAR with nine victories.

“He ranks up there as much or more,” Gordon said of Allmendinger. “He outran Marcos last year at Watkins Glen, which I thought was extremely impressive.

“I had been racing with Marcos that weekend up until we had our issues. He was strong, he was really tough and I didn’t think anybody was going to beat him. The fact that AJ did shows what his talents are on a road course.

“This road course, it takes a different type of driving style. AJ’s extremely aggressive, nobody drives deeper into the corners than AJ does. At Watkins Glen, that way of attacking the racetrack is very beneficial in putting lap times together.

“Here (at Sonoma), I think is a fine line and balance. I think AJ has the skills to be the fastest and best here this weekend, and certainly in qualifying, and then it’s going to come down to executing that in the race, but yeah, I would say he’s the guy to beat.”

Allmendinger embraces that type of thing. He wants to take his career, as well as the performance of his race team, JTG-Daugherty Racing, to even higher levels.

“You want to go out here and perform, but I just try to make it like any other race,” Allmendinger said. “No more pressure. No less pressure. And just go out there and do all I can and hopefully my good enough is enough to win. If not, just try to get everything we can.”

Allmendinger also won twice in 2013 on road courses in the Xfinity Series (Road America and Mid-Ohio).

His No. 47 Chevrolet team has struggled much of this season with two top-10 finishes.

“Right now, our team is just trying to improve,” Allmendinger said. “And the last six or seven weeks, we’ve kind of lost our way a little bit.

“This is probably a great race to try to get some momentum back, knowing that if we go out there and we do a good job, we should have a good chance to at least win the race or be in contention inside the top five. The guys have done a fantastic job in the off-week to really focus on this race car and get it better.

“But yeah, at the end of the day, I know what the prize is. I know if you win, you make the Chase; and that’s so important. But I try not to focus on putting the pressure on that this race is do or die, or Watkins Glen is do or die; and if we don’t, it doesn’t happen.

Follow @JerryBonkowski