One driver in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 field that has enormous road racing experience and success in a variety of series, including NASCAR, is AJ Allmendinger.
Allmendinger is making his first Cup Series start since 2018 driving for Kaulig Racing. He will also compete for the team in his full-time role in Saturday’s Xfinity Series Super Start Batteries 188 where he will start sixth.
"I am super excited," said Allmendinger, who won the Cup race at Watkins Glen International in 2014. "I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous to be back in the Cup Series. To go there with Kaulig Racing for our third-ever Cup race, and first on a road course, I am very excited. We will have some practice after the Xfinity race on Saturday, so I will definitely be in the flow of the race track."
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Along with last year’s Xfinity debut at the 14-turn, 3.61-mile track, Allmendinger has turned many laps around the circuit in sports car racing and assessed the nuances of the challenging layout.
"You look at the Daytona road course, it’s probably one of the easiest tracks to learn but after driving it in an Xfinity car it is so slick," he said. "It’s hard to even get to the throttle. Heck, by the end of a tire run I don’t know if you ever get wide open unless you’re on the straightaways. I mean, so that’s a unique challenge."
A change to the track since the Feb. 9 Busch Clash is around the bus stop chicane where rumble strips have been added in an effort to keep the cars from slinging dirt and mud up onto the racing surface. Allmendinger believes that will add a new wrinkle to navigating through the area.
"I’ve seen some small pictures, but I guess I’ll probably see it for real the first time during the Xfinity race," he explained. "That’s a challenge because now before where, as we saw during the Clash, you could kind of just drop some wheels in the dirt and get away with it. I think you’re going to pay a heavy price for making a mistake there."
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Another challenging area of the track is chicane right before the start-finish line. In the Clash, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney made contact coming to the checkered flag in that turn that opened the door for Kyle Busch to take the win.
"It’s very narrow," Allmendinger said. "It’s hard to go side-by-side. So, if you force the issue, you’re probably going to have contact if the driver next you doesn’t really give you that room that you want and on top of it if you get in too deep, it’s quite easy to get in, lock up a tire and then have to go basically miss the chicane and do a stop and go there on the front straightaway."
While Kaulig did not compete in the Clash, the team was able to learn from their partnership and alliance with Richard Childress Racing, which had Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick in the race.
"I think teams were kind of thrown off a little bit because last year it had the high downforce package," Allmendinger said. "You could get off the throttle when those big spoilers halfway just slows the car down by itself. With these little spoilers cars don’t slow down very well. So, I think teams were maybe caught off guard by how much of a difference that high to low downforce package makes. But we looked at it and RCR had some good notes from it. So we’re going to use that and start like that and then see what happens."
Allmendinger will start 34th in his 372nd Cup Series start. Kaulig is planning on running a limited Cup schedule in 2021 and Allmendinger is hoping there will be more in addition to his full Xfinity Series slate.
"I think we planned on if it goes well here at Daytona running more of the road courses, but you know, that’s up to Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice," he said. "The ultimate plan is to try to go for that Xfinity championship. That’s our main focus and between myself, Justin Hayley and Jeb Burton that’s what we’re going to do.
"But yeah, if we can run more of the road course races that be cool."
AJ Allmendinger will be one of the featured interviews in Sunday’s MRN pre-race show that starts at 2 p.m. ET.