Saturday's motor sports: Allmendinger back at Daytona in first Cup race since 2018

Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
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Daytona Beach, Fla. — AJ Allmendinger is back, racing for wins this time, and eager to help young Kaulig Racing reach the big show.

Allmendinger will run his first Cup race since the 2018 season finale in Kaulig’s first Cup race not at a superspeedway. The team last week made its second Daytona 500 — a critical first step in trying to become a full-time Cup team — and now it's dusted off ol’ ‘Dinger to take another shot Sunday on Daytona’s road course.

Ty Gibbs (54) celebrates with a burnout in front of the grandstands after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series road course race at Daytona.

Allmendinger is a ringer with 15 appearances in the Rolex 24 sports car race in Daytona. Nearly everyone else? The bulk of the Cup field ran it for the very first time last August, when the pandemic pushed Daytona’s winding 14-turn, 3.61-mile circuit onto the calendar for the first time.

His familiarity with Daytona made Allmendinger the smart pick for Matt Kaulig to take another step forward. NASCAR added Sunday’s road course race to the schedule in December and Kaulig persuaded his “trophy hunter” Allmendinger to help pull the team to the top level.

“I am pumped to be racing in the Cup Series for Kaulig Racing,” Allmendinger said.

Allmendinger was weary of the grind when he lost his job at the end of 2018. He had no desire to drive for mediocre teams just to have a seat. He decided to move on with his life.

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He planned to do television work and maybe moonlight for team owners he considers friends. Kaulig kept Allmendinger engaged in 2019 by giving him quality cars that could win in five Xfinity races. The program swelled to 11 races last season and the “Trophy Hunter” had three victories in 16 starts.

Allmendinger was helping Kaulig grow a program. The team started in 2016 and this season Allmendinger will run full time for the Xfinity championship as one of three Kaulig contenders. He’ll also drive select Cup races as part of Kaulig’s development.

Having a central role in Kaulig’s push to the top has made NASCAR enjoyable again for Allmendinger. He remembered last week when Kaz Grala made his first Daytona 500 start just how special the sport had once been to him.

“I was standing next to Kaz by the car during driver intros and I think veterans sometimes, we lose sight of how big the 500 is,” Allmendinger said. “When you are just standing there and you see somebody who has made his first 500, his eyes lit up — it made me feel good.”

Xfinity

Joe Gibbs celebrated his first NASCAR victory as a grandfather, watching from the pits as 18-year-old Ty Gibbs won his Xfinity Series debut Saturday on the road course at Daytona International Speedway.

It was the very first NASCAR national series race for Ty Gibbs, who jumped two steps from ARCA to Xfinity for his debut. He plowed through the field on a pair of restarts to beat reigning Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric in double overtime.

Gibbs became the youngest driver to win an Xfinity road course race at 18 years, 4 months, 16 days. Cindric held the record at 20 on the road course at Mid-Ohio in 2019. Joey Logano holds the overall record; he won 21 days after his 18th birthday in his third race — also driving for Gibbs.

Gibbs became the second-youngest winner in Xfinity Series history.

Gibbs drove through the grass, used the top lane on the oval and dove inside in the turns in his shocking first win. He’d never raced an Xfinity car before, never done a live pit stop before and COVID-19 restrictions cut practice and qualifying for Saturday’s race.

Joe Gibbs, a member of the NASCAR and Pro Football Hall of Fames, watched stoically from behind the pit stand. Shielded by a mask, he gave no indication of emotion. But as his grandson crossed the finish line, his glasses fogged and he hugged a Joe Gibbs Racing team member.

“This is the only thing Ty has wanted to do since he was 2-years-old,” Gibbs said. “This is such an experience. Any parent or grandparent would tell you, it’s like a dream come true for our family.”

Ty Gibbs dropped to his knees beside his Toyota and bowed his head into his hands.

Then he admitted he didn’t know how to do burnouts, either.

“I don’t even know what’s going on,” he said. Gibbs choked on tears, wiped away his eyes and apologized for giving a poor interview.

“I’m sorry I’m a wreck, I really didn’t think this was going to happen at all,” he said.

Ty Gibbs won eight ARCA races the last two seasons, and finally is old enough to run at the national level, his grandfather gave him a shot at NASCAR’s second-tier series. Although JGR is one of the top teams in NASCAR with outstanding equipment, Gibbs stream-rolled through the field and held his own as Cindric tried to muscle him back into his place.

Cindric and AJ Allmendinger crashed racing to the finish of the first stage, and Cindric was left with a gaping hole in his front fender. He dropped to 34th in the field but still drove his way back to the lead.

Cindric, who led a race-high 29 laps, had a Daytona sweep in sight until caution with three laps remaining gave Gibbs a chance. They both pitted for fresh tires and Gibbs restarted 10th, Cindric in 11th.

Gibbs on the first overtime restart blew past a pack of cars on the outside of Daytona’s oval and weaved his way in and out of traffic all the way to third. Another caution sent into double OT and Gibbs this time dove inside to gain ground.

He drove deep into the grass — kicking up dirt all over his car — and somehow still surged into the lead. Gibbs then pulled away to win of 1.726 seconds over Cindric.

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