Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – WATKINS GLEN, NY – There are certainly worse things than being the subject of high expectations and A.J. Allmendinger would heartily agree as much. He shows up at the historic Watkins Glen road course this week – any week really – as a trophy favorite for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GoBowling at the Glen (3 p.m., NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
He won the race in 2014 for an automatic berth in the NASCAR Cup Playoffs and the former IndyCar driver is justifiably a race favorite at any of the Cup series road course venues. This weekend, in particular, Allmendinger is rather motivated as a rare driving error eliminated him from contention at the series’ first road course, Sonoma Raceway, in June.
“You know, the road course races, I really try to be a perfectionist,’’ Allmindinger shared of the Sonoma missed shift that blew his engine and relegated him to a 38th place finish – the worst of his Cup career on a road course.
“Like I said, it’s not going to bother me here, but I am who I am,’’ he said. “It’s still in the back of my mind. It still just annoys me. That’s it. I was disappointed for the race team and that I let them down. We didn’t get a good finish. I don’t think we were going to win that race. I don’t think it cost us a Playoff spot there, but I thought we were going to at least have a top three or four finish. It just annoys me.”
Putting that disappointment aside is certainly a little easier whenever Allmendinger, 36, arrives in upstate New York. The rowdy and loyal fans at Watkins Glen obviously adore him – applause and autograph seekers meet him wherever he goes at the venue. Even his pet, a cat named “Mr. Tickles” is a celebrity – boasting nearly 4,000 followers of his own on Twitter
In return, Allmendinger has usually rewarded his road course “roadies” with lots to cheer about.
He’s completed every lap of all nine Cup races he’s run here – a remarkable statistic at a road course where the bumping and banging is more reminiscent of a stock car short track. He has six top-10 finishes highlighted by that 2014 victory. Four times he’s started from the first two rows on the grid and he answered his win with the pole position in 2015.
Allmendinger has two top-10 finishes in the three races at The Glen since his win, including a ninth place last year.
A victory on Sunday would vault Allmendinger into the 2018 Playoffs and cause a major shift in the standings with five races remaining (counting this week) to set the 16-driver Cup Playoff field. Allmendinger is currently ranked 23rd with three top-10 finishes – earning a season best third place at Daytona in July.
“In the end, I can just do my best,’’ Allmendinger said Friday morning. “I’ve come here and put a lot of pressure on myself. We all know what the ultimate goal is when we show up here. I think over the past couple of years it’s gotten a little bit more difficult. I think the field is spread out more. “
Allmendinger, who drivers the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing, says this season in particular, the Cup drivers have raised the road course game. All three drivers atop the standings – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – have won at Watkins Glen previously. And Truex, who won at Sonoma in June, is the defending race winner here.
“This year, we’ve seen the three fastest guys are usually the three fastest guys every weekend,’’ Allmendinger said. “It doesn’t matter what track we go to, unfortunately they’re good everywhere. I think there’s more of a difference I can make here as a driver, but I don’t see why it’s not going to be those three again that are going to be the fastest cars. As a whole, in the series, we’ve got to catch up to them.
“So, I just come here and do my best and try to get everything I can out of it. And whatever that holds, I think sometimes people look at it like if we don’t win, it’s a full disappointment of the weekend, but we come here and we run Top 5 all weekend and you get a Top 5 finish, that’s still tough to do and that’s still a good day.
“So, if there’s a chance to win, we’ll take the chance. And if not, we’ll just get the best that we can and for me, just get everything I can out of the weekend. And if I do that, I can be satisfied with it.”