'This is why we do this': Allmendinger wins MIS Xfinity race, relishes moment with fans

By Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — AJ Allmendinger had just won a heck of a race at Michigan International Speedway — finishing 0.163 seconds ahead of Brandon Jones.

He channeled emotion to beat the field in the New Holland 250 in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series Saturday afternoon, and then did burnouts near the finish line before jumping onto the top of his Chevy’s driver-side door to pound his fists on the roof.

A.J. Allemdinger takes the checker flag to win the NASCAR Xfinity Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway.

Next, checkered flag in hand, he ran up the banked oval and climbed the retaining wall to bang on the check fence. Allmendinger shouted, “Let’s go people!”

The fans were revved up in their own high gears. He jumped back down onto the track to take in all the emotion, all the love.

“A.J.! A.J.! A.J.!” they chanted.

Allmendinger, who said he once went five years between wins, had secured his third win on the circuit this season and is a solid second in the race for the season’s championship.

Life is indeed good for the 39-year-old racer from Los Gatos, California, and he’s learned to savor the good times. His connection to the fans goes deep, too.

“We wouldn’t be here without the fans,” Allmendinger said. “I won a race in Atlanta last year, and there was nobody there, and it was weird. My team couldn’t even come into victory lane. I was just standing there by myself.

“And when they were there (Saturday) and standing against the fence just screaming, it brings another level to it. And without them, sponsors aren’t going to be here. We’re not going to be racing, and none of us are going to have a job. This sport is driven off of the fans.

“And, whether you love me or hate me, as long as you’re enjoying the sport, that’s what’s fun about it. Believe me, I’d rather be cheered than booed. But just that energy, and that’s what makes NASCAR so special, because it’s the passion of the fans. So, when they’re chanting my name, it means so much to me.”

He’s riding the wave of a turnaround and enjoying driving for “passionate” owner Matt Kaulig.

“I spent a lot of years in my career in NASCAR barely sniffing a win or close to it,”  Allmendinger said. “So, I don’t get tired of this. … I went five years without even coming close. So, I’m always going to be excited about it.

“This is why we do this. We’re trophy hunting. This is what it’s all about. And if you’re not that excited about winning a race then you shouldn’t be in it. So, on my end, this is never going to go away. I don’t know when it’s going to end, and so I’m going to enjoy every one that I get.”

Austin Cindric, who had been running strong before his day was ended by a multi-car accident early, is in first with 907 points and Allmendinger is next with 872 with 11 circuit events (including the playoffs) remaining.

“There’s a championship, possibly, at the end of this,” Allmendinger said. “We’ll either win or finish second, and so it’s about getting our cars where they need to be.”

Cindric, who won the first 30-mile stage Saturday, had his hood fly off but tacked on a few more laps with smoke billowing out from beneath his Ford Mustang.

Allmendinger started the race on the front row with Cindric, and took the second 30-mile stage. He had momentum, and drove it all the way to the end, winning by fractions of a second before winning over the fans.

Ty Gibbs, 18, was one of several ARCA Menards Series entrants in Saturday’s race. However, after winning Friday night’s ARCA event, Gibbs finished 13th despite challenging in the early going.

This day was Allmendinger’s, and he’s on a roll, having won last Sunday, August 15, in the Verizon 200 at Brickyard in Indianapolis. He kissed the bricks at the finish line afterward, and returned sometime later to do so again, stopping to take photos with fans.

He spent the night at the track, and found himself on the “back straightaway” of the world’s most famous race track at “2:30 in the morning, tears kind of rolling down my eyes.”

He couldn’t believe it happened, and that all of this is happening to him.

When a racer struggles mightily and finds his groove, he savors it.

“It’s been a great six days,” Allmendinger said. “And no matter what, it can never be taken away from us. … I don’t want to wake up from this dream.”

Sunday's finale

The NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400, the crown jewel of three days of racing here, is scheduled for a 3 p.m. Sunday start. Gates open at noon.