SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — AJ Allmendinger knows the stakes on Sunday: Win on the road course at Sonoma Raceway and he earns a spot in NASCAR’s championship race.
The year-old qualifying format almost guarantees a race winner a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, which Allmendinger capitalized last season. His win at Watkins Glen earned the driver and JTG Daughtery Racing their first Chase berth and was the crowning achievement for one of NASCAR’s smaller teams.
Allmendinger, one of the top road racers in NASCAR, is hoping for the same outcome this year. His first shot comes Sunday on the picturesque 1.99-mile track California track.
“I know the format — if you win, you’re in the Chase,” Allmendinger said Friday. “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.”
Statistically, road courses are Allmendinger’s best events.
His 13.6 average finish at Sonoma and Watkins Glen is nearly eight positions better than any other style of track in the series, and two of his seven career top-five finishes are at Watkins Glen. His Sonoma results aren’t as strong, but he’s considered a driver capable of winning by his competitors.
Jeff Gordon, the all-time wins leader at Sonoma with five, cited Allmendinger’s impressive victory over Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen last August as evidence that Allmendinger is one of the best in the field.
“He outran Marcos at Watkins Glen last year, which I thought was extremely impressive because I had been racing with Marcos that weekend … and he was strong, he was really tough and I didn’t think anybody was able to beat him,” Gordon said. “The fact that AJ did shows what his talents are on a road course.”
But Gordon believes that Allmendinger will have to adjust his driving style to grab the win on Sunday. Allmendinger is considered an aggressive driver, and that style doesn’t always work at Sonoma.
“Nobody drives in the corners deeper than AJ does,” Gordon said. “I think that at Watkins Glen that way of attacking the racetrack is very beneficial and definitely puts good lap times together and is tough to beat. Here I think there is a fine line and balance between that. I think AJ has the skills to be the fastest and the best here this weekend, certainly in qualifying. Then it’s going to come down to executing that in the race. I would say he is the guy to beat.”
Allmendinger needs it: He comes into Sonoma in a four-race slump with finishes between 23rd and 29th since the Coca-Cola 600 in May. When he qualified for the Chase a year ago, he admitted JTG needed to get much better if they had any shot of competing in the 16-driver championship field.
He still believes that, even though the single-car team has made gains over the last year.
“I think we’ve improved,” Allmendinger said, “and everybody else improved more. That’s kind of the nature with a smaller team is you’re always trying to play catch-up a little bit.”
Allmendinger opened the season strong and was as high as fifth in the standings, but a lack of consistency and chasing NASCAR’s powerhouse teams has him in a hole that he’d like to climb from more than grab a win in a wild-card race.
“We had a couple of DNF’s and we blew some motors a couple of weeks in a row. We crashed at Bristol running inside the top 10,” he said. “I wouldn’t say panic set it, but we started trying different things. We know where we have to improve. We have the steps in place and the ideas in place, but it’s not an overnight process, either.”