AJ Allmendinger may be a part-time Cup racer these days, but nobody discounts his ability to win — especially on a road course.
Allmendinger underscored that point seven months ago when he drove Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet to Victory Lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course in August 2021, adding a second Cup win to accompany his 2014 triumph at Watkins Glen.
As the series returns to Circuit of the Americas, where Allmendinger placed fifth in last year’s inaugural Austin event, many eyes turn to the Xfinity full-timer to contend yet again.
On full display will be the Next Gen car, which makes its official competition debut this weekend. Allmendinger tested the vehicle in October at the Charlotte Roval. The features of the car — larger brakes, independent rear suspensions and rack-and-pinion steering — would seem to favor road racers with sports-car experience like Allmendinger. But what caught his attention most is the sheer fun factor.
“I think more than anything it just makes it a little bit more enjoyable to go out there and drive,” Allmendinger said in a Wednesday media teleconference.
The build of the current car better lends itself toward handling the twists of a road course while maintaining the speed that stems from the 670 horsepower under the hood.
“You can kind of toss the car around a bit more, just a little bit more nimble,” Allmendinger explained. “The steering is quicker. The car reacts quicker. That’s something that I always enjoy about a racecar. It makes it enjoyable to go out there and attack a race course, especially at a place like COTA where there’s so many corners, so many different types of corners … whether it’s high speed or late on the brakes.”
Allmendinger started his career in the now-defunct open-wheel Champ Car World Series and spent time in IndyCar and IMSA, winning the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2012. Yet for all his road-racing experience, he hesitates to say the Next Gen car gives him any particular advantage.
“Everybody’s so good on the Cup side of it, so I wouldn’t say that this car lends more of an opportunity for myself,” Allmendinger said.
It might sound like Allmendinger is trying to play coy, but he’s just as aware of Hendrick Motorsports’ recent dominance on road courses as everyone else. Last year, Kyle Larson (three) and Chase Elliott (two) combined to win five of the seven races on the schedule. Allmendinger and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell were the lone exceptions.
“Somebody like Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott, etc., I mean they’re so good that they figure it out as well,” Allmendinger said.
However, later Wednesday on NBC Sports’ Motormouths, Allmendinger clarified that while the car may not provide him any particular advantage, deeper braking points may favor drivers like himself and Elliott more than others.
“With these cars now, you’re going to brake so late,” Allmendinger said, “especially at COTA where you come out of Turn 11, go all the way down that back straightaway with a ton of speed. You’re going to be super late on the brakes. If it steps out, there’s not a lot of time to save it and it’s pretty easy to make a mistake.
“So it actually may help the guys that are really good being late on the brakes. But just like every racetrack we go to, we won’t know until we get in the racecar and feel it out.”
Perhaps the best news is that when drivers do get onto the track this weekend, there will be no need for the rain tires Allmendinger had to use last year. The forecast appears bone dry, which should entice more fans to experience stock cars around one of the country’s premier circuits.
“The crowd (in 2021), for as bad as the weather was, I couldn’t believe on Sunday how packed the racetrack was for just the monsoon that we all sat in and had to deal with,” Allmendinger said. “I feel like the first couple of races of a new market or a new racetrack you get a really good crowd, so I think it’s about trying to keep that crowd there or keep growing the crowd.
“Austin has shown with the IndyCar race and the F1 races there that motorsports side of Austin, Texas is very savvy. It’s very popular. I hope that this weekend you know good weather, we get a huge crowd again and we go put on a great show for three different races there.”