Fun factor, title hopes bring Allmendinger back into full-time fold with Kaulig

AJ Allmendinger has found both checkered flags and the right fit for team chemistry with Kaulig Racing, which signed him to full-time duty for 2021.

As the slick social media video that Kaulig Racing dropped Tuesday morning indicated, AJ Allmendinger could have alternated weekends in his semi-retirement years either dabbling with his spot stock-car starts or duffing golf balls into the second cut of rough.

Instead, the versatile 38-year-old veteran indicated that the competitive juices still flow on the back nine of his career. He’ll go from part-time duty to a full-season campaign for Matt Kaulig’s operation in 2021.

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Two main factors are driving him to return and potentially reinvent his career in NASCAR’s Xfinity tour: The appetite for the national-series title that’s so far eluded him and a sense of belonging with the tight-knit Kaulig group, which will expand to three full-time cars for the first time next year.

“It’s because I really wanted a shot to at least go after a championship. In my NASCAR life, quite honestly, I’ve never been in that position,” said Allmendinger, whose career has been largely spent with teams in either start-up or rebuilding mode. “So I’ve really enjoyed it. That’s it. In a way, it’s rejuvenated me of my love of NASCAR racing and being there. I just truly enjoy being at Kaulig Racing. It was like a fun start in 2019 and then this year, I wanted to keep doing more races because I was enjoying it. So when Matt Kaulig gave me this opportunity, I had to do it.”

Fun is the opposite of where Allmendinger seemed to be in September 2018, rounding out his last season in NASCAR’s Cup Series, 24th in the standings and with his departure from JTG Daugherty Racing looming after a five-year run. Back then, he addressed his future at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a press conference that took on a hushed, almost overwrought sense of loss. “You make it sound like I’m dying up here,” Allmendinger said, laughing to break the tension. “I just don’t have a job right now. That’s not my plan. I’m not leaving.”

Allmendinger never fully left motorsports, quickly finding a position with NBC Sports as part of its sports-car racing coverage team. He then linked up with Kaulig for a five-race slate in 2019 and bulked up his schedule to 11 Xfinity Series events last season. That scattering of races produced three wins, performances that synced up with Kaulig Racing’s rise in the circuit’s pecking order.

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Multiple trips to Victory Lane helped to stoke Allmendinger’s sense of revival, but so have the bonds he’s forged the last two seasons, starting with leadership from the front office of car owner Kaulig and team president Chris Rice. Allmendinger lauded their ability to encourage, but also their tendency not to sugarcoat expectations, sometimes in brutally honest terms — a “tough love” quality that the veteran driver says he freely returns.

The relationship has such a sense of mutual understanding that each side struck a deal with the other before committing to a full 33-race ride with the No. 16 Chevrolet — Allmendinger making sure that Kaulig’s resources weren’t spread too thin with an expansion to three full-time teams, and Rice making certain that Allmendinger had a way to opt out if a full schedule began to resemble drudgery.

“That’s what he wants me to make sure that every weekend, it’s not a job. This is fun,” Allmendinger said. “… I put all the pressure of the world on my shoulders, no matter whether I believe we truly have a shot to win a race or we don’t, it’s on my shoulders I feel like to try to make us better and to go that next step, so I’m still going to have that to a certain degree, but the fact is that if Chris — and he told me right away — he said if he sees it on my face, if he sees it in my demeanor and my actions, then we don’t need to keep doing this on my side of it, and we can go back to part-time and all that. I made that deal with him, and I’m in a different place in my life and I’m enjoying it.

“Sure, when I get to the race track and strap the helmet on, I’m going to put all the pressure on myself, just like I do in the part-time schedule. But away from it, it’s all about improving.”

Improvement has accompanied growth for Kaulig Racing, which fielded just one full-time Xfinity Series team as recently as 2019. Last season’s maturation to a two-car outfit also included Kaulig’s first venture into the Cup Series — a one-off effort for Justin Haley in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Allmendinger says he’s been involved in “small discussions” about a possible future for Kaulig Racing in NASCAR’s top series, but noted that the team’s most recent goals were focused on landing Jeb Burton for the team’s No. 10 ride, sealing Allmendinger’s full-time status for 2021 and concentrating on Haley’s championship bid in last month’s Xfinity Series finale.

In the shorter term, Allmendinger’s own title pursuit next year will face a powerful returning cast of Xfinity Series contenders, including defending champ Austin Cindric of Team Penske, plus stacked established lineups at JR Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing among the worthy challengers.

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Allmendinger says he doesn’t expect the pressure he places on himself each race to change, but says he anticipates Kaulig, Rice and his teammates to keep the fun factor going — even if some tough love is involved.

“We know at the end of the day, we have each other’s backs, and it’s not finger-pointing against each other, it’s all going the same direction and that’s ultimately to try to win races and try to win a championship, and that’s what I love about it,” Allmendinger said. “But in the meantime, while we do that, it’s very enjoyable — whether we’re at the race track or at the shop or just hanging out, it’s just very enjoyable. And that’s why I love all the men and women at Kaulig Racing.”