By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Contributor
Despite a third-place finish in the Daytona 500, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has not started off as planned for A.J. Allmendinger.
A penalty at Atlanta Motor Speedway dropped Allmendinger to 34th in the Championship standings. The penalty also resulted in a four-race suspension for his crew chief, Randall Burnett.
Several finishes outside the top-15 have held him back in the standings as the field rolled into Martinsville Speedway, one of Allmendinger’s best tracks.
Left looking for more speed after placing his No. 47 Kroger ClickList Chevrolet SS 21st on the speed charts in the first practice session, Allmendinger moved to fifth fastest in the second practice for the STP 500, and was 17th in the final practice. Qualifying was rained out, relegating the JTG-Daugherty Racing driver to starting 30th on the grid.
The first two stages were quiet for Allmendinger. Although he moved up through the field, Allmendinger was not able to break into the top-10 to gain championship points in either stage. However, he stayed on the lead lap throughout both stages.
As the laps clicked down, Allmendinger continued to move closer and closer to the front of the field. At the same time, the racing became more intense. On lap 290, Austin Dillon spun after contact. Allmendinger was one of several drivers to be involved in the incident. Luckily for him, the damage was minimal and easily repaired during the five-minute repair clock.
After pitting, Allmendinger found himself mired in the middle of the field once again. He started his charge forward, but as the laps wound down, passing was at a premium.
By lap 400, Allmendinger was just outside the top-10. With plenty of time left in the race, he was positioning himself to move forward.
However, on lap 419, Allmendinger found himself taking evasive action. As Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin spun ahead, an accordion effect spread backwards. Allmendinger swerved to the right, clipping and spinning Aric Almirola. Once again, Allmendinger was lucky as his damage was minor.
Over the final 74 laps, Allmendinger surged ahead. With 60 laps to go, he had broken into the top-10. By the time the checkered flag waved, he had climbed to sixth.
This was Allmendinger’s first top-10 finish since the Daytona 500. He also climbed from 30th to 26th in the championship points standings. Allmendinger is now 178 points behind championship points leader Kyle Larson.
When asked if he credited his Martinsville success to the similarities to road course racing, Allmendinger was happy to explain.
“I mean it’s for sure a little bit like a road course race,” he said. “I just think the driver can make a bit more of a difference here. We worked hard on the West Coast swing. We learned a lot. Finishes didn’t show it, but felt like we learned a lot aero wise for those bigger race tracks and just coming to here it’s just about having a good car.”
“This car was frigging hooked up. Once we got it right, long runs, it was just an awesome race car. I can’t thank everybody at Kroger, Clicklist, and all of our associates, everybody at the shop. Randall Burnett (crew chief) having him back after the suspension, just, God I wish we would have stayed green for about 120 laps because I think I could have ate these guys alive. All-in-all a solid day.”
Now Allmendinger will look forward to a reunion with Burnett as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series moves on to the newly repaved and reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway.