AJ Allmendinger, The Man Who Killed Champ Car (Open-Wheel Invaders Pt. 3)

At the mid-2000s peak of NASCAR’s popularity, top-ranked drivers from the world’s great racing series brought their towering reputations to the Cup Series. A few found success, a few more stuck around, but most of them left just as quickly as they arrived. This series tells the stories of NASCAR’s open-wheel invaders, driver by driver. 

In 2022, you may know Los Gatos, California’s Anthony James Allmendinger as the most statistically successful road-course racer in NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series. For team owners Matt Kaulig and Roger Penske, Allmendinger owns nine road-course wins from 22 starts, and an incredible 18 top-fives. 

But Allmendinger is more than a ringer. He’s won four times on ovals in the Xfinity Series, and in his first full-time season in 2021, he won the regular-season title, a stat he looks primed to repeat this year. Ever since Kaulig Racing put Allmendinger part-time in its No. 16 Cup car, he has been a threat to win every time the series goes road racing, even winning the inaugural Indy road course race last summer. In NASCAR’s most competitive road-racing era, Allmendinger is inarguably a star. 

But fifteen years ago, Allmendinger was supposed to be the next great American open-wheel racer. 

After getting his start running karts and quarter-midgets in California, Allmendinger moved quickly up the ranks of the American single-seater ladder, winning championships in Barber Dodge Pro Series and the Atlantic series before being promoted to Indy cars with Carl Russo’s RuSPORT team in 2004. 

Well, Indy cars, but not IndyCar. Of course, this was the era of The Split. I wrote a more comprehensive description in my Dario Franchitti piece, but in simplest terms there were two rival American open-wheels championships by 2004: the Indy Racing League, which focused on ovals and had, by that point, attracted most of the big teams and sponsors, and ChampCar, which raced almost exclusively on road and street courses and skewed more international. Allmendinger joined the latter. 

After two and a half seasons and eight podiums without a victory, Allmendinger left RuSPORT for the championship-winning Forsythe Racing ahead of the fourth race of the 2006 season in Portland.

Allmendinger took full advantage of the opportunity, winning his first three races with Forsythe in a row, becoming the first American to win in the series in over two years.

All told, Allmendinger’s breakout 2006 would end with five race wins and a third-place result in the championship. He was the great American hope, the last credible threat to the unstoppable dominance of Newman/Haas Racing and Sebastien Bourdais, who had won three consecutive championships from 2004-2006, and the only driver left with a realistic shot at becoming the series’ first American champion in a decade. 

Except, Champ Car’s newest phenom took his newfound clout and vanished over the hill. Allmendinger left Forsythe with one race remaining in 2006 to join Team Red Bull’s new NASCAR Cup Series operation for 2007, driving the No. 84 Toyota full-time in 2007.

While the obvious scapegoat of the global financial crisis shows Allmendinger isn’t solely to blame for the collapse of the other Indy car series, his shock defection was a serious blow to a series already on the brink of disaster. We saw in NASCAR the effects of long-term dominance by one driver when Jimmie Johnson won five titles in a row from 2006 to 2010, just as NASCAR’s peak era turned to decline.

Of course correlation does not equal causation, but without Allmendinger on the circuit, Bourdais cruised to another dominant championship in 2007, his fourth title in a row coming in the final Champ Car season before it was fully absorbed into the IRL.

At first, the switch looked like a misstep on both sides. America’s hottest open-wheel superstar didn’t find any success at all in stock cars. In his first season with Team Red Bull, Allmendinger failed to qualify for 19 of the 36 races and only finished inside the top 30 four times. 

Both driver and team took a step forward in 2008, qualifying more often and breaking the top 10 for the first time in a farcical race at Indianapolis. But after a career-best result at Kansas in September, Red Bull dropped Allmendinger in favor of fellow open-wheel invader Scott Speed.

AJ finished out the season driving Gillett Evernham Motorsports’ No. 10, which had been evacuated by yet another open-wheel invader, Patrick Carpentier. 

At Evernham, Allmendinger suddenly found himself performing better than ever before, finishing top 20 four times in five starts. That was good enough to be offered the new No. 44 car when Evernham merged with Petty Enterprises to form Richard Petty Motorsports for 2009.

Though only the opening seven races were guaranteed, a career-best third-place result in the season-opening Daytona 500 attracted enough sponsors for Allmendinger to compete in every race of a Cup Series season for the first time in his career. Following a switch to Ford and No. 43, Allmendinger stayed with RPM through the end of 2011, finishing a career-best 15th in the standings that season. 

For 2012, his big break arrived. Allmendinger was tapped by Roger Penske to replace Kurt Busch in the No. 22 Pennzoil Dodge. Given championship-caliber equipment for the first time, Allmendinger had an uneven first half of the season, highlighted by a new career-best of second place at Martinsville.

But his career would come to a shuddering halt at Daytona in July, when NASCAR suspended him indefinitely for failing a random drug test. Allmendinger would later explain he had taken the prescription amphetamine Adderall after being told it was an “energy pill.”

He completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, and again replaced Kurt Busch at Phoenix Racing in the final few races of 2012.

Since at the time, Allmendinger was best known for failing a drug test, failing to qualify, and being charged with a DUI in 2009, many assumed Allmendinger’s time in professional racing was done. 

Remarkably, it wasn’t, and Allmendinger returned from his exile a more mature driver.

In 2013, Allmendinger ran part-time for Phoenix Racing in the Cup Series before being tapped to replace Bobby Labonte at JTG Daugherty Racing mid-season. He did well enough to earn a multi-year deal with the No. 47 squad starting in 2014. 

But it was outside the Cup Series that Allmendinger impressed. He made just two starts in what was then known as the Nationwide Series for Roger Penske, dominating at Road America and Mid-Ohio to claim his first two victories in stock cars. He also returned to open-wheel racing with Penske, running six IndyCar races in the No. 2 Chevy including the Indy 500, for which he qualified fifth and led 23 laps before a malfunctioning seat belt forced him to pit, dropping him to seventh in the final running order. 

Of course, Allmendinger’s extracurricular racing was always impressive: he ran the Rolex 24 almost every year, winning overall in 2012 for team owner Mike Shank, but it was 2013 that made the racing world take notice.

Then, at Watkins Glen in the summer of 2014, Allmendinger battled his former teammate Marcos Ambrose for the win, coming out on top to take his and JTG Daugherty’s first Cup victory, locking the No. 47 into the very first win-and-you’re-in playoffs. He ended the season 13th, the highest points finish of his career. 

While Allmendinger would come close to winning again with Daugherty, on both road courses and at Martinsville, he would depart at the end of 2018 with no plan for the future. He started the year as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of IMSA, before getting an offer to run a part-time schedule in Kaulig Racing’s second Xfinity Series car. 

The rest, as they say, is history. With Kaulig, Allmendinger has emerged as a threat to win every time he shuts the visor. He is the only driver to win a non-restrictor plate race for Kaulig, and is undefeated in his three starts at the Charlotte Roval. 

Leading the Xfinity Series standings at the time of writing, Allmendinger has fully embraced his new role as the ageless veteran leading Kaulig’s “trophy hunting” efforts in NASCAR’s top two divisions. His record-setting run on Xfinity Series road courses has earned him a place in NASCAR history, but never forget: AJ Allmendinger was first an open-wheel invader.

Featured image from James Gilbert/Getty Images via NASCAR Media

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

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