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A.J. Allmendinger taking time to enjoy Xfinity success

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Over the last two weeks A.J. Allmendinger has experienced a few highlights in his lengthy NASCAR career.

On June 6, he earned his first oval track win in a Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and a week later claimed a $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus in Sunday’s Xfinity race in Miami.

When the Kaulig Racing driver and NBC Sports analyst reflects on his racing career, the only part that compares to the last two weeks took place a year before his NASCAR career started. It occurred in 2006 during his final year in the Champ Car open-wheel series.

“Back in my Champ Car days, to have the run that we did where I won three in a row, that was a lot of fun,” Allmendinger said Wednesday in a Zoom press conference. “It was kind of the same situation. It was unique in the sense that that was with a new team (Forsythe Racing) when I did it in Champ Car, and I don’t want to say it was unexpected but when you go to a new team like that to have that much success so early was a little bit of a shock.”

Allmendinger observed that during his winning run in Champ Car, that “maybe I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it enough because I was always focused. ‘OK, that just happened. Great. Let’s celebrate. Let’s move on to the next weekend.’ ”

AJ Allmendinger celebrates after winning the Grand Prix of Toronto in 2006. (Photo by Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Following the end of his full-time Cup career in 2018, Allmendinger has made eight starts for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series. In that time he’s won twice while finishing in the top five four times.

“Now me just being at a different point in my life and really being so thankful for any opportunity that I get to drive a race car, but especially with Kaulig Racing because (owner) Matt Kaulig really has made that third car generally my car,” Allmendinger. “They basically said that when (the No. 16 car is) running, they want me driving it. Just all the men and women of Kaulig Racing, for them to give me these opportunities. … I just want to always show my appreciation and my thanks for the effort that everybody puts in. … And the best way to go do it is to go win races and then with the Dash for Cash from Xfinity to have that $100,000, which as you know, it’s a big deal.”

Now he’s trying “to enjoy it more because you never know when it can stop. And I never know when my last race is going to be. So I hope I have a lot more going. But definitely trying to enjoy it and really be at the race shop and at the race track and having fun with the race team.”

Allmendinger’s fun continues this weekend as the Xfinity Series travels to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama (5:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1. It’s the third Dash 4 Cash race and will pit Allmendinger against Chase Briscoe, Brandon Jones and Chastain.

Like all his Xfinity starts this year, it’s his first at Talladega in the Xfinity Series and the green flag will drop without any practice having taken place.

“I’m always a little bit nervous of the unknowns of how a car is going to drive and just trying to get used to it and get a comfort level during the race in an Xfinity car at (new race tracks),” Allmendinger said.

Allmendinger’s start comes after he failed to make the season-opener at Daytona due to a mechanical failure during qualifying.

“Take out the race itself and being Talladega and knowing that anything can happen … we know that the Kaulig Racing Chevy’s are fast, ECR horsepower, Chevrolet, we know that the cars have a lot of speed,” Allmendinger said. “So what happened at Daytona was a mechanical failure on both mine and Ross (Chastain’s) car that we fixed and it won’t be an issue again. It was unfortunate that it happened at Daytona, but you know, I look at it when things like that happen, you know, positives come out of it. …

“I don’t know if that led to have an opportunity to go race in Atlanta and so on. So our superspeedway program has always been really fast, (with) last year at Daytona with Ross winning. Ross and Justin (Haley) at Talladega and Daytona won stages. So these cars are going to be fast and our engineers have been really good about the simulation and making sure all the ride heights and everything are correct.”

Harrison Burton sets Xfinity rookie record in Miami

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Not even a cut tire with eight laps left in the scheduled distance of Sunday’s Xfinity race could keep Harrison Burton from establishing a series record.

Thanks to two overtime restarts, the driver bounced back to finish eighth Sunday, a day after he won the first part of the series’ weekend doubleheader at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

With Sunday’s finish, Burton goes into this weekend’s race at Talladega (5:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1) with a top-10 finish in each of the first 10 races of the Xfinity season. That breaks the previous rookie record of nine races with top 10s established in 2005 by Carl Edwards.

“As a company I think we made some strides,” Burton said after the race. “Not a finish my team deserves, but that happens. You are getting all you can the last few laps – right against the fence – and sometimes you just overstep. Once I got to the wall, I couldn’t get off of it, and that’s what caused the right rear to blow.”

Burton’s win Saturday in Miami after only leading the final two laps gives him two wins on the season. He also has a series-leading seven top fives.

Despite those numbers, there’s still areas where Burton’s No. 20 team need to improve, namely stage finishes. Though he can finish up front, he has yet to claim a stage win.

Eight other drivers have at least one stage win, as Noah Gragson leads with five stage wins.

“I think we want a little more raw speed,” Burton said. “We want to win more stages, things like that. … Got to find a way to get those playoff points, they are really important come later in the year. We saw last year with (Tyler) Reddick, (Cole) Custer and (Christopher) Bell, all of those guys were pretty much locked in though the first round of the playoffs, and that’s because they the (had) stage points and the points from winning.

“We’ve got to get a little bit more dominate, a little bit more aggressive early in the race, and somehow be a little faster. That’s my main goal now – to fire off faster and try to be aggressive from the start and hopefully, get more dominate.”

Through 10 races Burton is third in points behind Gragson and Chase Briscoe. He trails Briscoe by 27 points and Gragson by 45 points.

As far as stage points go, Burton has earned 58 through 10 races. That trails Gragson (124 stage points), Austin Cindric (118) and Briscoe (106), even though Cindric has failed to win a race so far this year and is fourth in the overall standings.

Ryan Blaney: ‘We’re close’ to breakthrough win

Ryan Blaney
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If not for an early spin and wreck at Bristol Motor Speedway last month, Ryan Blaney could be the owner of the best hot streak in the Cup Series through 12 races.

Instead, the Team Penske driver can simply take satisfaction in having top-four finishes in five of the last six races ahead of this weekend’s visit to Talladega, where he won last fall.

Blaney’s latest top five came Sunday night in Miami, where he drove his No. 12 Ford to a third-place finish behind race winner Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott.

It completed a week where Blaney finished fourth at Atlanta last Sunday and second in Wednesday night’s race at Martinsville. But it also left him as the only Team Penske driver without a win this year.

Not one to openly brag or complain, the 26-year-old driver knows he could be doing far worse.

“We could be running 20th every week,” Blaney said after Sunday’s race. “You’re proud of the runs that you’ve created and the speed our team’s got. I’m proud of that. … The way I look at it is, just keep running up towards the front like that, I think those things come.

“Just proud of the speed we have, that we’re close. Just little things will go a long way when you’re this close. If you have to find 15 spots worth of speed, that’s when it’s troublesome.”

Blaney’s front-running speed comes in his first season with crew chief Todd Gordon, who was shifted from Joey Logano‘s No. 22 team to Blaney’s in the offseason.

Blaney observed that he and Gordon’s communication have led to key adjustments in recent races.

“I feel like Todd and I have gotten along really well,” Blaney said. “We’ve communicated great. The only thing that really stands out to me, some races we don’t start off very good. Atlanta and Martinsville we didn’t start off very good, but at the end of the race we were very good. …

“To be able to communicate like that kind of in the early part of our relationship has been really nice. I look back at a lot of the … bad finishes we’ve had, of me wrecking in Bristol, tire coming apart at Fontana, the caution coming out in Vegas, we’ve had some really strong runs. That’s something to be proud of. …

“It’s been a nice run we’ve been on here. I can’t wait to get that first win together here soon. The group deserves it.”

Blaney and the No. 12 team take their streak to Talladega, the superspeedway where Blaney earned his third Cup series win last fall in the playoffs.

He followed that up with second-place finish in February’s Daytona 500.

Unlike those two races, the series will race on the 2.66-mile track with a new rules package, a result of changes made by NASCAR in answer to Ryan Newman‘s violent wreck on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Those changes include:

  • Elimination of aero ducts at superspeedway tracks.
  • Reduction in size of throttle body from 59/64” to 57/64” (superspeedways only).
  • Slip tape must be applied along the entire length of the lower rearward facing surfaces of the rear bumper cover and extension (superspeedways only).

A practice session originally scheduled for teams to get acclimated to the rules package was cancelled over the weekend, meaning their first time at speed with it will be when the green flag drops Sunday.

With the new package, Blaney hopes the runs drivers are able to make on another car “aren’t as big.”

“That was something that we talked about with NASCAR,” he said. “The runs were gigantic. We get hooked up, that made your runs even bigger. … There’s a fine line. You need the draft to work to where you get runs on cars, but not monstrous drafts where it’s dangerous to kind of block them and things like that. Hopefully we can find a fair in-between.”

Regardless of the rules package, Blaney recognizes his momentum from the last six races doesn’t mean much with the unpredictability of Talladega.

“That’s just a whole other beast,” Blaney said. “We say it all the time: you get caught up in someone else’s stuff, it’s just part of it. … As far as the momentum side, yeah, you feel good for sure, stringing together some decent runs. It’s hard to kind of carry that over to Talladega. You just never know what can happen.”

What drivers said after Cup race at Miami

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Denny Hamlin  – winner: “Our car was really good. This is a setup based off of what we had in the fall here last year going for the championship. Had a strong car all day. Obviously with the laps led and was able to get around Chase (Elliott) there at the end. This whole FedEx team has just done a phenomenal job. This Camry is real special. Have to thank Coca-Cola, Jordan Brand, FedEx and all of our partners. Everyone at JGR for putting together great race cars and keep digging to make ourselves a little bit better.”

(Did you feel patience would pay off and Chase Elliott would come back to you after the last pit stop?) “I didn’t know. It seems like the end of these races are Chase’s best suit. I knew that if I was just patient and ran the pace that I wanted and the pace I was comfortable with, we were going to be hard to beat in the long run.”

Chase Elliott – finished second: ” I just need to get through lap traffic better.”

Ryan Blaney – finished third: “When we came off pit road after that last green flag stop we were a ways behind those two guys and we made up a lot of ground, tons of ground on them, and just got to them and everyone is running the wall.  You just get tight, especially in (Turns) 3 and 4.  (Turns) 1 and 2 there are multiple lanes, but three and four if you weren’t on the fence when you got 15 laps on your stuff, you were just tight and gonna hit the fence, so that made it hard for us to kind of go once we got there.  (Tyler Reddick) was the same way with me.  He kind of got there and stalled too, but I’m proud of the group.  We had really good short run speed early in the race and I thought by the end we had really good long run speed, so we crossed over which is a good effort by the Jack Links team.”

Tyler Reddick – finished fourth: “I’m really proud of my Chevy Cares Chevrolet team and the effort we showed today. We had really good speed and were able to run up front pretty much all night long. The men and women of RCR and ECR did a great job preparing us with a fast race car to bring down to my favorite track on the circuit. We were able to use that speed to our advantage and race into the top 10 within the first 30 laps, and we were able maintain that track position. We fined tuned our car from then on out for the rest of the race and tried to make it better to run the fence. It was tough, though, because sometimes the top seam worked better instead of the fence, so figuring out which lane was the best to use at what time was tricky. We got a little too tight by the end of the night to really make the fence work like I wanted, but all in all, it was a solid effort. I’ve won the past two times I’ve come here, granted in the Xfinity Series, but it was so fun to be ripping the fence with three of the best tonight in the NASCAR Cup Series. It was a hard-fought battle and one we can build momentum off of.”

Aric Almirola – finished fifth: “Man, we finally had a nice clean day today. We really needed that as a team. We haven’t raced a full race yet without having something go wrong. This proves we have the speed we need to compete this season if we continue to run clean with no mistakes. Homestead is not an easy track to earn a top five at either. To get our first of the season here shows we have a lot of potential.”

Austin Dillon – finished seventh: “It feels great to be able to capture a top-10 finish for my first race as a new dad, and to bring home a solid result for everyone on the Dow Coatings and Behr teams. The No. 3 Dow Coatings Chevrolet was much stronger at the end of the race than it was at the beginning of the race, so I am proud of everyone for sticking in there until the end. We started off way too loose, but adjustments on pit road helped us improve handling. By the end of Stage 2, the handling transitioned to tight, but we were really fast, especially in clean air. We worked our way up to seventh when we were issued a penalty for an uncontrolled tire during a pit stop and had to battle through the field to earn our seventh-place finish. We had a fast Chevy at the end of the race, and I’m proud of everyone at Richard Childress Racing. It was a solid effort all around for our organization this weekend.”

Christopher Bell – finished eighth: “Our Rheem Camry was really, really loose to start the night and then Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) did a great job adjusting on it got it pretty close to where I was happy and then we were able to pick our way though there. The races are so long – there are so many yellows – that I really wasn’t worried about our starting position. I knew that if we had a car that was good; we were going to get up front.”  

Brad Keselowski – finished 10th: “It was a good comeback for our MoneyLion Ford team tonight. We were really tight for most of the race but (crew chief) Jeremy (Bullins) and the guys kept working hard and we came away with a top 10.”

Clint Bowyer – finished 11th: “That was frustrating. Our BlueDEF Ford had the speed tonight, but we just couldn’t get it to turn like we needed. We were tight and really struggled for grip.

Michael McDowell – finished 15th: “That was great. Another top 15 run; that’s two in a row for us. Everyone at Front Row Motorsports has worked really hard. Our No. 34 program has been a lot better this year and we’re starting to see some of the fruit of that, so thanks to all of the guys back at the shop who have been working really hard to get everything that they can out of our race cars. Our Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang was fast on the long runs; we just needed a couple more laps at the end to grab a couple more positions, but I’m really excited about our performance today. Drew and the boys did a good job tonight and I’m ready to keep the momentum rolling with Love’s Travel Stops next weekend at Talladega.”

John Hunter Nemechek – finished 19th: “We had a solid night in our No. 38 Death Wish Coffee Ford Mustang. We fired off pretty tight and battled with that for probably two-thirds of the race. The crew was lightning fast on pit road all night long and we managed to get the car a little bit freer towards the third stage. We would have finished a few spots higher but I had a right front tire go down on the last lap. We still were able to get a top 20, which is another solid result for us.”

Cole Custer – finished 22nd: “The guys did a great job staying with me all day. We fought a tight car for most of the day, and we’re working hard to figure these cars out, but I can’t thank the guys enough for hanging with me all day.”

Joey Logano – finished 27th: “We just really struggled tonight, even when we were leading early in the race. The team made a lot of adjustments the first two stages and we just couldn’t ever get the front tires to work and turn the center. We’ll regroup and head to Talladega next Sunday.”

Corey LaJoie – finished 29th:

Daniel Suarez – finished 31st: “It was a good job by the pit crew. It was a good job by Dave (Winston, crew chief) and everyone. The balance of the car was good for most of the night. Now we just need to find more speed.”

 

Results, point standings for Cup Series race at Miami

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Denny Hamlin dominated Sunday’s Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win his third race of the year.

Hamlin led 137 of 267 and swept every stage on the way to his 40th career Cup win.

He beat Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola.

Hamlin is the first three-time winner this season through 12 races.

Click here for the race results.

Point Standings

Despite his worst finish of the season Kevin Harvick retains an eight-point advantage over Chase Elliott.

The top five was completed by Joey Logano (-29 points), Brad Keselowski (-51) and Blaney (-52).

Click here for the full point standings.