In the Hot Seat with AJ Allmendinger

Chiefly, AJ Allmendinger loves going to battle for Kaulig Racing. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

Chiefly, AJ Allmendinger loves going to battle for Kaulig Racing. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

Above all else, AJ Allmendinger epitomizes pure passion and enthusiasm for a competitive stock car racer. Indeed, the 39-year-old Los Gatos, Calif. native wears his heart on his sleeve, demanding the best from himself each race weekend.

Naturally, AJ Allmendinger works ardently at balancing his intensity during a long, competitive NASCAR XFINITY Series season. Certainly, the 14-year NASCAR veteran knows what it takes to achieve success in high stakes racing.

Moreover, with seven career XFINITY wins and his Cup victory at Watkins Glen in 2014, Allmendinger continually turns up the wick. At times, most turned their focus on Allmendinger at the road course races.

However, particularly with driving Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet Camaro, Allmendinger showcases his all around abilities each weekend. Paired with crew chief Jason Trinchere, Allmendinger consistently battles for victories, no matter the track.

Beyond his wins at Las Vegas and Mid-Ohio, Allmendinger, with 11 top fives and 12 top 10 results, may be “Mr. Consistency.” Foundationally, with an average finishing position of 9.1, Allmendinger makes a strong case as a NASCAR XFINITY Series championship contender.

Recently, I caught up with AJ Allmendinger and discussed his strong season, the Kaulig Racing ambiance and advice for his younger self. Without further ado, in Q&A and podcast format, let’s all get “In the Hot Seat with AJ Allmendinger” on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson : AJ, thanks again for joining us here for The Podium Finish. It’s always a pleasure to have you on with us. It’s been a strong season so far with your wins at Las Vegas and Mid-Ohio. With this quick start in 2021, what’s it like to go out there and know that you have a chance to win each weekend?

Surely, AJ Allmendinger feeds off the vibes from Kaulig Racing's campus. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

Surely, AJ Allmendinger feeds off the vibes from Kaulig Racing’s campus. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

AJ Allmendinger : Well, it makes it fun. I mean, quite honestly, that’s what it’s all about. You want to show up to the racetrack and know that you have a shot every weekend. And I feel like at Kaulig Racing, we do. Some of it, I’m learning each week what I needed in the race cars and Kaulig Racing is learning me.

You know, we’ve only. …you take out this year, we only ran a couple of regular oval races, I’d call them, besides superspeedway. So yeah, just trying to learn and get better each week. Some weeks we have a lot of speed. Other weeks, we’re a little bit off in the sense of of just trying to get that right feel on the racecar.

But yeah, I mean, it makes it so much fun to know that when we show up, and if we get everything right and I’m comfortable, we definitely have a shot to win.

Tiongson : It reminds me a little bit, and it might be a bit of a big comparison, but it reminds me a bit of how Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports got their communication and chemistry down pat. In the XFINITY Series, teamwork and having things gel together is very indelible, of course. So kind of like Larry McReynolds would say, “Hey, he’s just out there to grab a good top 10 finish or a top five.”

It seems like [with] your team’s success, it has coincided with the growth of Kaulig, as a whole since the past two, two and a half years. And like you mentioned, you guys have only done more of the traditional oval races, like really this year, other than the partial schedules in the last year and a half. But from your perspective, what is it like to see the organization grow by leaps and bounds even during a challenging time with the pandemic?

Allmendinger : Yeah, it’s been really enjoyable. You know, that’s something that I probably found more enjoyment in, and pride and to a certain degree, just being a small part of it than I really ever expected. When 2019 [came up], I signed up to do five or six races. I didn’t think of anything past that. And, you know, we had some good success in in the road course and superspeedway races that we ran. And then last year, we kind of, in a way, almost had the same schedule plan.

But with the pandemic and Matt Kaulig wanting to run more races, you know, that led to going into Atlanta and getting my first oval win ever and their first oval win besides the superspeedway. And kind of just carried on a little bit to the point to where we got at the end of the year.

They gave me the opportunity to go full time racing. So you know, it’s probably a better question for Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice about how much of a factor I play in it. But it’s something that even when I wasn’t in the car last year, I’d be watching every race and trying to do everything I could to maybe see something. Or text Chris Rice and ask questions and things like that just to try to help as best as I could.

So, you know, I think it’s very true. At least I feel like, of course, I want to win the race. But, if one of my teammates wins, we’re still all a part of that win. And that’s been a lot of fun. And really, that’s where I find a lot of enjoyment in. I think it shows when Justin Haley won last year and Ross won at Daytona two years ago. And then when Jeb won this year at Talladega, we all are happy because we’re all a part of that. So that’s what makes this team so special.

Tiongson : It’s such an authentic celebration whenever you guys win. Even if one of you has a bad day, but then Justin or Jeb wins. it’s just jubilation all around. It’s not like a practice or rehearse type of celebration that we may see in other forms of motorsports. You guys really do root for each other. It’s such a close relationship that even with Jeb being kind of the new kid in town, it’s pretty neat to see how you guys mesh together.

Allmendinger : Yeah, Jeb, you know, I’ve always respected Jeb so much because he hasn’t had a full time ride in the last several years. And he’s a grinder and you know, his family and especially him and his dad Ward, they’ve done everything that they can to try to stay in the sport. So it means so much to him. So it truly is.

When he has success and when Justin was finally able to break through last year, and get an XFINITY win, especially what it meant in the No. 11 car, because that’s the house car. That’s the LeafFilter car that’s been Matt Kaulig’s baby. So, it just is special anytime that that one of us can win. And, no doubt, you know, you ask Justin, you ask Jeb and you ask myself. Are we the ones that want to win? Of course. But it really means a lot.

I think, just especially where I’m at in my life and career, when one of them wins, we all win still. And that starts with just the attitude that Matt Kaulig sets, that Chris Rice sets at the shop for all the men and women. And that just carries on down. Every person in the shop, is working on every car. It’s not the 11 team, it’s not the 10 team, it’s not the 16 team. It’s every person in that shop has a hand in all three of the cars before they leave to go to the racetrack. So, it is truly a team organization when anytime one of us wins.

Tiongson : And that’s what I think makes you guys such a great organization to cover not just in the last few years. It’s just been such the epitome of a someone’s dream. It’s expanded upon what he probably imagined. And it’s still growing by leaps and bounds. It’s just inspirational to see. Not even the pandemic can slow you guys down, not even driver changes can slow you down.

Now, we’ve seen a lot of changes within the world of NASCAR, obviously more road courses on the schedule, new team owners coming into the Cup series, or even just any of the NASCAR series. And of course, the much discussed Next Gen car is around the corner in the Cup series. What’s it like to see all of this buzz and excitement around you with the new team owners, these cars, everything that definitely is going to change a lot of things?

In the meantime, AJ Allmendinger enjoys the recent gains for NASCAR and his team. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

In the meantime, AJ Allmendinger enjoys the recent gains for NASCAR and his team. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

Allmendinger : I think it’s very important for our sport. You know, you’ve covered it for a long time, Rob. I mean, I think there was a time a few years ago where we all kind of looked around, like, what’s going to happen here.

Like there’s nobody coming into the sport. Sponsors were starting to decline a bit. And just, it really was “Okay, when is the next growth of the sport going to happen?” Because I think we’re all at times a little bit worried. Nobody really wanted to talk about it. But like, like, there’s no new blood coming in here and what’s going to happen?

We love the team owners that we have. But, to keep having the sport grow, you need new team owners, young team owners come in with some new ideas, maybe some new sponsors. And all of a sudden, in like one little spurt, like it’s happening.

The new car looks really cool. I haven’t had a chance to drive it. But I think that’s gonna be fun to to have that car come out and kind of go to the next level of an act [of] NASCAR. The way it looks, the way it sounds, things like that.

More importantly, I think it comes down to the the team owners and bringing in new sponsors. You know, Matt Kaulig started six years ago as an XFINITY team.

And now moving up to a Cup team, a guy like Justin Marks, so young, and so many great ideas, a great business sense, you know, can bring in a guy like Pitbull. Denny [Hamlin] with MJ, you know, and so on.

So, really more, it’s more of the growth of getting team owners like that coming in the sport. You get guys like MJ and Pitbull that are so global. And that brings attention to NASCAR from different levels, and different people that maybe have never looked at it before.

In just a quick couple of years, it went from “What’s going to happen?” to there’s a lot of new excitement around. And that’s only good for all of us, right? Like it’s good for us drivers, for the fans, for the people that cover the sport. Because as big as it seems sometimes, we can all agree we’re in a little small pond that we’re all working together because it’s it’s our livelihood. So, it’s a big deal. What’s happened over the last couple years.

Tiongson : I think it’s one of the most exciting periods I’ve been through covering the sport and then these last 13 years. And yeah, that’s kind of been a fear of ours a little bit. It’s like what’s going to happen next? A lot of the established car owners are getting a little bit older. But like you said, this explosion of new owners has come [fast]. It’s just been so cool to see.

And all this changing around of charters and new team owners, driver combinations, there’s just so much about it. Not even a program next year is going to explain [it]. So I mean, it’s a really fun time to be in the sport and see what’s going to happen.

Nevertheless, Allmendinger looks forward to more Cup starts on a part time basis with Kaulig Racing. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

Nevertheless, Allmendinger looks forward to more Cup starts on a part time basis with Kaulig Racing. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

Allmendinger : Yeah, I mean, and the the charters, I mean, you kind of hit on it there. Like, for a while the charters like, we kind of looked at it, like, do we really even need these? (laughs) Like, nobody’s coming. Like, what are these for? And all of a sudden now, over the last two years, we’ve seen, like, the fight to get these charters.

And I haven’t really talked to Matt or Chris about what they’ve had to go through to get the charters. But mainly, it shows that like, it’s important, because there’s now more team owners and cars trying to come in than what we had before where we didn’t have enough cars, it seemed like and the charters didn’t mean anything. So, it’s good for all of us. It’s good for the sport.

Tiongson : More competition just means that there’s going to be a really healthy series, whether your Cup, XFINITY or Trucks. And I think we can all agree that we need to have as much healthy competition out there. I’m sure as a driver, you want to have as much competition out there so that each race day weekend is a challenging one. It’s not like, “Oh, I’ve got 10 drivers I have to go after versus well, maybe I have 15 to 20 now that I have to kind of carry myself up against.”

Allmendinger : Yeah, I mean, you know, there was a time in Cup, it was when you look at, I mean, really my first year, couple years in Cup, I mean, there was 55 fully sponsored cars that were just trying to make the race, let alone racing against them. And you weren’t guaranteed to beat any of those cars once you got in the race. And, so, you want the best of the best in there, whether it’s teams and drivers.

I think if you look at XFINITY, the quality of the field this year is probably deeper than it’s been in the last couple of years. You look at the Trucks, I mean, the young talents with the mix of the veterans, I mean that series is really fun to watch. So, you know, just hopefully, it stays like that. The Cup side of it is is obviously really important because that’s the pinnacle.

But it’s also really important to keep the XFINITY series strong, the Truck series strong, and those team owners that are in Cup wanting to keep spending money in those series because, you know, young drivers want to come in and bring sponsors and bring money.

Their ultimate goal is to reach Cup. So, I think Cup’s always going to be what you look at, but it’s just as important to keep Trucks and XFINITY just as strong and keep that growing as well.

Tiongson : Oh, I totally agree. And we do. I mean, you also establish fan bases not only with the up and coming drivers, but you know, drivers like you who have made a home in the XFINITY Series. And, you’re not just going out there and happy to ride around. Or you’re making some differences out there with being this competitive, front running driver for Kaulig Racing in the nice XFINITY Series, which does lead me to my next question.

You and Kaulig Racing seem to be about as good of a combination as Mr. Tickles is with with Xena. How comforting is it as a driver to know that you’ve finally got your team that feeds off your energy? And you also do the same with them?

Without doubt, AJ Allmendinger and Matt Kaulig have their eyes on the XFINITY Series prize. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

Without doubt, AJ Allmendinger and Matt Kaulig have their eyes on the XFINITY Series prize. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

Allmendinger : Yeah, it’s. …you know, the thing that I’ve always tried to show, and hopefully, if you ask any of my teams that I’ve driven for or any crew members that have worked with me, you know, my passion to go out there and try to be the best for myself for one. You know, it’s one of those things like, you don’t, you know, and there’s certain people that say they don’t, you know, they don’t care what other people think.

And I’ve always kind of been like that in the sense of of the outside world. But I’ve always truly cared what the people think about me inside the race team, because they’re the ones, the men and women, I mean, they have my life in their hands. And they’re building racecars and I’ve always wanted to show my appreciation and just how much it means to me to be at the best for myself for them.

For my owners, and you know, Kaulig Racing, Matt Kaulig is just a great guy. He’s a fun guy, he’s easy to be around. he’s easy to talk to. Chris Rice is the same way. And, the great thing about the team is you can be open and honest.

And that’s not always the easiest thing to do. Because it can be hard. I mean, like, we’re not easy on each other. Chris will be the first one to tell you, I’m hard on him. Like, how do we get better? But I also expect them to be the same way. And he is with me. Like, how do you want me to be better? How do we do this?

But at the end of the day, if you go to war with each other, against the rest of the field, against the rest of the teams, you go to war together. And you know that no matter if you have that hard discussion with each other, or you have that easy discussion with each other, that no matter what, those people are going to have your back, then that’s what makes you strong.

And that’s what we have at Kaulig Racing is that the fact that we can have those open and honest talks. But know that we have each other’s backs, we’re in it together, good or bad, win or lose. And then away from it, no matter what happens, you can still have so much fun.

I enjoy going to the shop. It’s always fun with the attitudes in there, hanging with the guys, I love going to hang out with Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice and whatever we’re doing. It’s just a fun team to be a part of. And the bigger thing is the want out of the organization to continually get better, is what I love.

It’s always the push to get better whether we had a fantastic weekend, or we’ve had a struggled weekend, like we’re always pushing to be better. And that’s what makes it a little bit easier every time.

It’s just knowing that, like we’re all in it together, that we can go out there and work hard together and have fun together. You know, it’s just, I’m not really sure what else to say. I mean, it’s just a great organization to be a part of and I’m having the most fun that I’ve had in a long time, if not maybe my career with them.

Tiongson : It’s noticeable. And it’s also a good thing not to be complacent. Like you said, if you have a bad day or a good race weekend, you guys go to war with each other to you know, say, “Hey, you know, it seems it sounds like a situation where you guys don’t get too high or too low on each other.”

And that’s something so important to have. No matter if it’s racing, or working a real job in the office, you just have to have that desire to go out there and be the best you can. If you do, more times than not, you’re going to get the results that you deserved at the time. You can strive for even better from that, for sure.

Now, you’ve been in the NASCAR scene for the last 15 years. And you’ve talked a little bit about those huge car counts back in the day. Even though I wasn’t covering it back in 2006, I certainly can remember that far back.

But when you consider everything you’ve been through, what advice would you share to your younger self, especially to the one that was making the leap from Champ Car to NASCAR?

On the other hand, Allmendinger provides unique perspective with his advice to his younger self. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

On the other hand, Allmendinger provides unique perspective with his advice to his younger self. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

Allmendinger : Well, I mean, it was a challenge for sure switching series. And, you know, I personally didn’t even want to do it the way went down where I went straight to Cup. I thought I was gonna be doing a lot more Busch races at the time and Truck races.

For whatever reason, we didn’t do it. And, you know, there was no guarantee of racing every weekend. So there’s a lot of races that we missed. I was always missing a lot of track time. And I think the biggest thing I could have done early in my career was probably ask for some advice.

But you know, I came from a series where, you know, you’re friendly with each other, but you didn’t really go ask for advice because you didn’t want to feel weak of asking, “OK, how do I do this?” or “What should I expect?” and things like that.

I think, nowadays, it’s a lot more open about those conversations. But you know, at the end of the day, I would never go back and change anything. The advice that I would have, is to try to enjoy it a little bit more, because I’d always put so much pressure on myself.

But, Rob, I mean, it’s one of those things I always laugh [about]. And, you know, no matter what I do, whether it’s playing golf or whatever I’m doing, like racing, I expect the best out of myself. So, I’m intense. I’m hard on myself.

And you know, I’ve had people go, “You just got to change that a little bit.” I’m like, “Well, I’ve been racing cars, professionally, getting paid, for 20 years. And, sure, you’d like some more success, but at the end of the day, I’ve won in open wheel, I’ve won in IMSA, I’ve won in Cup, I’ve won in XFINITY. I’ve been very fortunate. So, you know, I kind of joke around and say, “There’s no reason to change now. I am who I am. You just got to enjoy it a little bit more.”

That’s what I’m trying to learn to do. And in doing well at it, because, I believe me, you’ve seen me before a race. I’m intense and I’m nervous. And if it’s a race that’s bad, I’m still pissed off after the race and mad, but just trying to get over a little bit easier and enjoy it more.

So, honestly, I don’t know if I would really change anything about it. You know, it’s, I am who I am. That can be good and bad sometimes. But I mean, it’s worked out OK.

Tiongson : I’d say so. And for people who say you need to be lighter, easier on yourself, I do think that sometimes being hard on yourself can actually be a an asset to you, because it means that you care. And it’s not just the opposite wouldn’t hold true. But obviously, I think you’re the kind of person I’ve noticed over the years who, you know, you really, you wear your heart on your sleeve.

You are very passionate about what you do because you’re not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for the team that you’re with. And, you have a lot of great memories in the sport, too. So I think there’s so much more to it than just saying, “Oh, you’re just intense.” I think, even though I’m not a racecar driver, I try to understand a little bit of what you go through. And I can appreciate your perspective and your approach.

Because to me, you’re getting to do what you love, and there’s nothing greater than that. Other than, on the professional side, I think that’s the best thing we can all do.

Allmendinger, or "Dinger," goes door-to-door with Daniel Hemric at Road America. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

Allmendinger, or “Dinger,” goes door-to-door with Daniel Hemric at Road America. (Photo: Mike Moore/The Podium Finish)

Allmendinger : Yeah, for sure. And, I mean, it has nothing to even do with being a racecar driver to a certain degree. It’s just who I am. I want to be at the best and anybody that really cares about what they do, whether it’s a hobby or a profession, if you truly care, I mean, it’s OK to be hard on yourself.

Sometimes, I’ve been too hard on myself. And I’ve definitely got myself in some, bad dark places when it comes to it. But, you know, you learn from it, and you grow. And like I said, “I’m still here, and I’ve had a fairly decent career and I’m still going.” So I’m alright with it.

Tiongson : You’re such a great driver to cover over these years. And I always love getting to see what you do just because of the fact that if I had to imagine what it’s like, if I got to be a racecar driver, even though I looked up to Jeff Gordon, as far as who out who would I be like as a driver, I would say you kind of remind me of myself a little bit, just because I’m kind of the same way as a journalist. I’m kinda like AJ Allmendinger part time schedule during the XFINITY Series these last few years, hoping to get to be like you today, full time. (chuckles)

Allmendinger : Yeah, I mean, it’s all about pushing and not giving up. So I mean, that’s the biggest thing.

Tiongson : Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got a couple more questions for you. Before I wrap things up, because you answered most of the ones that I haven’t even asked. So, I think you’ve tapped into my phone and read my questions…or not. (laughs)

Let’s actually go to a fun one with Free Association, which I think I’ve done with you a few times. But, if you could just tell me the first thing that comes to mind with the following words, we’ll start off with nicknames.

Allmendinger : Dinger.

Tiongson : Kind of like that one. Favorite track.

Allmendinger : Laguna Seca.

Tiongson : Ah, the old corkscrew over there in Monterey, California. I love that track. Heat training.

Allmendinger : Terrible at it. (laughs)

Tiongson : Yeah, I am too…

Allmendinger : Actually, let me rephrase that. Like I would say, it hasn’t worked because it’s still hot in the cars. (laughs)

Tiongson : Oh, that’s true.

Allmendinger : Yeah, I still haven’t figured out what training I need to maybe like change my mind about how hot it is in the car sometimes. So you can use any of those answers because they’re all the same. Like it just hasn’t worked yet, It’s still hot!

Tiongson : (laughs) That’s fair. Guilty pleasure food.

Allmendinger : Oh, Sour Patch Kids.

Tiongson : Oh, interesting. I thought you’d say chocolate chip cookies…

Allmendinger : Yea, Mike and Ike or Sour Patch Kids, either one.

Tiongson : Cool, cool. Dream car.

Allmendinger : Ferrari, because I used to always walk by when I was a kid with my mom in Los Gatos, San Jose, but we’d always walk by and Los Gatos is next town over to where I was born. And there was always a Ferrari dealership. I’d always looked at those cars walking by and I always thought, “I mean, it’s a Ferrari. Can’t go wrong.”

Tiongson : I personally liked those ones. My favorite would be the Testarossa but only because I liked Miami Vice as a kid.

Allmendinger : (chuckles) Nice. Yeah.

Tiongson : Well, I just don’t want to end up looking like Don Johnson with a mullet. But you know, the car is cool. And I would like to drive around with Crockett’s Theme in my car going to Homestead-Miami one day. My last question for you, and see, I didn’t ask him a Mr. Tickles question. By the way, I love the fact that you thanked him in victory lane at Mid-Ohio. I don’t know if you remembered when I challenged you to thank him. But that made me smile from home.

Allmendinger : (laughs)

Tiongson : I’m going to put you in the hot seat. The name of your segment, by the way on this, this article. Alright, my friend. Give me three reasons why you and your No. 16 team are going to win this championship.

Ultimately, AJ Allmendinger expresses absolute confidence with contending for this year's XFINITY championship. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

Ultimately, AJ Allmendinger expresses absolute confidence with contending for this year’s XFINITY championship. (Photo: Stephen Conley/The Podium Finish)

Allmendinger : Oh, good question! For sure, determination. Definitely the family atmosphere that we have at our race team. And I think by the end of the year, we keep doing the things that we’re on the path doing, we’re going to be the best organization in the series.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to AJ Allmendinger for taking the time this week for this latest “In the Hot Seat” interview! Also, thanks to Carly Miktuk and Kaulig Racing for their assistance with this latest interview on The Podium Finish. You can keep track of AJ Allmendinger on his Twitter account. Lastly, for the podcast version of my interview with AJ Allmendinger, please feel free to listen to it below.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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