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Kaulig Has Unlocked the Best Version of Allmendinger

And now they're going Cup Series racing next season.


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Upon taking the checkered flag on Saturday afternoon in the Xfinity Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, AJ Allmendinger made his way backwards down pit road where he was greeted by teammates Daniel Hemric and Landon Cassill.

Kaulig Racing team president Chris Rice and car owner Matt Kaulig were not far behind.

This is, of course, standard operating procedure for an organization that acts more as a family than a race team but this one was extra special for a lot of reasons. Allmendinger had been racing on superspeedways for a decade and a half and never won one until now, a moderate point of contention to the veteran racer.

But also, Allmendinger would soon announce the culmination of his NASCAR comeback with Kaulig, inking an agreement to drive the No. 16 Cup Series car for the 2023 season.

At face value, the past four years is so remarkable because there was no connective tissue to indicate that it was a realistic option after Allmendinger had entered semi-retirement following his departure from JTG Daugherty Racing in 2018. It’s no secret that Allmendinger was burned out and not entirely having the kind of experiences he wanted.

He became a part-time television analyst, open to racing under the right circumstances, when he got such an offer from Rice and Kaulig that winter.

"At the time, I had retired or was retiring," Allmendinger said. "I won a Cup race. I won some Xfinity races. I won some Champ Car races. I've been able to do a lot of great things, but you walk away, or at least I did, 'I wish I could have done more.'"

Even at the time they started racing together, Allmendinger had no idea how much more he was going to get the chance to achieve.

"All of this has been unexpected," Allmendinger said. "I had never met (Kaulig) in 2019. Chris Rice called me to do a couple of road course races, 'and oh by the way, the superspeedways too,' and they had to talk me into those. I didn't want to do those. I ran six races and didn't think anything of it beyond 'these are cool guys.'

And then came 2020, the pandemic year, and an offer to do even more races than what they originally agreed to do.

Allmendinger became a fixture within the company. He became ‘dad’ to Justin Haley or ‘Uncle AJ’ to the likes of Jeb Burton, Ross Chastain, Hemric and Cassill. Allmendinger agreed to a part-time job, that became a legitimate family atmosphere that in turn became a career renaissance.

They started to win in bunches, and not only on road courses, but everywhere. Allmendinger has won the past two Xfinity Series regular season championships and will likely compete for the overall championship again this year too.

They’re going Cup racing together this year -- what a journey.

"The biggest thing I realized is that I realized how much I had missed being at the track when I wasn't there," Allmendinger said. "I'd watch it on TV and I would be texting them about what I saw. This is all, to me, a bonus.

"And it's made me way more comfortable in my skin than I've ever been," Allmendinger said. "I know I'm outgoing at times and you see me wear my emotions on my sleeve and I still do. They see it -- when I have a bad race, I'm upset and frustrated but away from the race track, they make it so enjoyable. Even if I feel like I made a mistake, it's like 'shake it off, we'll go to the next one. We love you.'"

It can’t be overstated how important this is to Allmendinger’s head space -- the environment he needs to thrive.

Allmendinger has been very forthright about what he thought was the end of his Cup Series tenure, and how the self-imposed pressure and responsibility weighed on him in a way that wasn’t conducive to success or happiness.

That they’ve done this together in Xfinity has made taking the next step together all the more comfortable.

"It sounds sappy and lame, but I truly enjoy it now, and I'm comfortable in my own skin," Allmendinger said. "I have a lot of self-confidence issues at times, and I know it doesn't look like it, but you go behind closed doors, and there's some dark times, but with these guys, there are a lot less of them."

So why not return to the Cup Series, where Allmendinger is poised to have even more chances to win on road courses but is also one of the most experienced drivers on the grid against an increasingly younger roster.

Traditionally, Allmendinger has always been at his best racing with friends, like with Mike Shank in IMSA. And now with Kaulig and Rice, Allmendinger aims to keep trophy hunting with his extended family too.

"With everything I've been fortunate enough to do, we walk upstairs, even on a bad weekend, we have 16 trophies we've won together, 18 if you count the regular season championships," Allmendinger said. "That's made me so much more comfortable with what I've been able to accomplish ... I am loving every minute of it right now.