LEXINGTON, Ohio (WCMH) – AJ Allmendinger had to drive through the field twice on one of the slickest, narrowest race tracks in America; First, going from 12th to the lead at the start of the race, then 16th to first late in the race after a pit road penalty.
But Allmendinger, a 39-year-old veteran racer known for his road course expertise, used a risky move and staunch defense in the final laps to win Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in the hills of Morrow County.
Most of the B&L Transport 170 was a cat-and-mouse game among three drivers: Allmendinger, who won in 2013; Columbus native Austin Cindric, the series points leader and 2019 Mid-Ohio winner; and Ty Gibbs, an 18-year-old phenom who dominated Friday’s ARCA Menards Series race.
Allmendinger made a green flag pit stop right before the end of stage two – lap 50 of 75 – to stay ahead of drivers planning shorter stops in the upcoming stage break. But he was penalized for not spending the required 50 seconds on pit road, a rule in place to even Saturday’s competition because many usual Xfinity Series crew members are at the Cup Series race in California.
The punishment? Allmendinger had to start at the tail end of the lead lap on the upcoming restart. Just over 20 laps remained.
Allmendinger restarted 16th but drove up to third in less than 15 laps, holding steady behind Gibbs. Cindric had a 10-second lead on Gibbs – and a 13-second lead on Allmendinger – with seven laps to go, but a late caution suddenly erased that seemingly insurmountable advantage.
On the restart, Allmendinger daringly dove to the inside of Gibbs and Cindric and took the lead. After another caution, he beat Gibbs on a two-lap-shootout restart and never looked back.
“I made a decision coming to the green that I was either going to win or I was going to crash,” Allmendinger told reporters after pulling his No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet Camaro into victory lane.
Cindric made contact with another car after Allmendinger passed him for the lead, and he spun into the grass coming out of turn 1. The 22-year-old finished 14th after starting on pole.
Gibbs finished third, behind Allmendinger’s teammate Justin Haley in second.
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A winning, tight-knit culture at Kaulig Racing
Allmendinger’s team owner Matt Kaulig runs his three-car operation out of nearby Hudson, Ohio, a suburb of Akron. Team operations are based in North Carolina.
Saturday was Kaulig Racing’s first win at Mid-Ohio, its third win of the season, and its 10th win since debuting in the Xfinity Series in 2016. Kaulig said he hosted 450 people at Mid-Ohio, and three Ohio companies sponsored the cars: LeafFilter (which Kaulig owns), Ramco Specialties, and Nelsonville’s Rocky Boots.
“It’s our home track,” Kaulig told reporters. “I mean, we don’t make any bones about the fact that it’s a big race for us.”
2021 is Allmendinger’s first full season in the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s second level. He was mostly full time in the top-level Cup Series from 2009 to 2018, succeeding mainly just on road courses and superspeedways.
Allmendinger said that his career reached a new, better chapter two years ago when driving for Kaulig Racing at Mid-Ohio, where he “fell in love with the team.” After a “terrible” practice session, overwhelmed by pressure he put on himself, Allmendinger said he felt the need to “perform a miracle” at his team’s home track.
“(Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice) pulled me aside and said ‘We’re not winning today. Relax. We’re not good right now. Just go give everything you have and that’s all we ask,’” Allmendinger recalled.
“That lifted everything off my shoulders,” he said, “and I finished third and I was thrilled with it.”
Allmendinger said that supportive, family-like culture also helped him overcome Saturday’s pit road penalty and make his 3-wide move for the win.
“When we had the pit road mistake, sure, I was mad and I let it be known I was mad,” he said. “But I calmed down and said ‘We win and lose as a team’ as we went back green and ‘I’m going to go try to make up for it.’”
The culture at Kaulig Racing was also apparent in Matt Kaulig’s affection for rising star Haley, 22, as well as Haley’s respect for his veteran teammate.
Third Kaulig driver Jeb Burton finished Saturday’s race 16th after a late spin.
Central Ohio race fans may recognize Allmendinger from his 16 starts in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race for Pataskala-based Meyer Shank Racing, including a win in 2012.
As fate would have it, MSR team owner Michael Shank took time away from celebrating his win last weekend in the Indianapolis 500 to cheer on Allmendinger at the track.
Mid-Ohio was Allmendinger’s second victory of the Xfinity Series season after winning at Las Vegas. He’s second in the points standings, behind Cindric, and locked into the 12-car playoffs.
Saturday was the only Xfinity Series event this season to headline a weekend, as all other races play undercard to Cup.
Xfinity drivers head next to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Saturday, June 12. NBC4 and NBC Sports Network pick up NASCAR broadcasts on the following weekend, June 18-20, at Nashville Superspeedway in Tennessee.