NASCAR: Allmendinger talks Daytona 500 race strategy

Chevrolet cars are on the front row of the Daytona 500 just about every year, and then the Fords and Toyotas smoke them in the race.

Funny how that happens.

Chevy driver AJ Allmendinger talks strategy in getting to the front in the Daytona 500 because a Chevy could win the race if the Fords and Toyotas crash, the seas part, and a Chevy driver sneaks through.

AJ ALLMENDINGER, NO. 16 NUTRIEN AG SOLUTIONS CAMARO ZL1, was the fastest Chevrolet in the NASCAR Cup Series final practice before the Daytona 500. AJ, tell us a little bit about your car and what you’re looking forward to tomorrow.

“It was pretty easy to be the quickest Chevy… I think there was only three of us that went out there. It’s been good. We decided yesterday not to practice just to kind of fine tune everything. There were only a few things that we wanted to try. I felt like in the Duels, we never got the track position, but the car had pretty good speed in it. So, more than anything, it’s me just trying to learn the techniques of this car on the superspeedway because I didn’t run any of the (Cup) races on superspeedways last year.

Overall, I feel like it’s pretty good. It’s going to just be more about learning during the race tomorrow with 40 cars out there; how the car is reacting. It will be a little bit warmer than today. How the tires start to slide around and stuff with that many cars around you.

I’m pretty happy with everything. We’ll be ready to go tomorrow. It’s really cool to have Nutrien Ag Solutions on the car; moving up to Cup with me. It’s been a great partnership with our race team for the past several years now, so for them to come to the Cup side with me means a lot. It’s really cool to have them here.”

Based on what you’ve learned about the car so far, have you developed a strategy for tomorrow?

“I think as we’ve all seen, it’s hard to get a third line working around here. In the past, I was always one of those guys that would kind of just sit back early on in the race and just let it develop. Some of it, at those times, maybe I didn’t quite have the speed to consistently run up front. So it was more about trying to time when to get up front and stay there at the end of the race.

With this car, I feel like you have to have more track position early on. So with 100 laps to go – I think 60 to 70 to go – you need your track position. It’s hard to try to get back up there. What I fought in the Duel was I felt like we were pretty decent, but it’s just hard to make moves. So I think trying to get up front however we do that and obviously trying to stay there, especially after halfway, is going to be really critical. The cars in traffic get aero-tight. Obviously we see when you’re pushing, if you push the wrong way, it’s tough. So it’s going to be a challenge tomorrow, but I think just trying to get up front early and hopefully stay there is probably the best thing.”

You’ve done this before. You’re no stranger to this week, but it’s been five years. Is the emotion different coming back to the Daytona 500 now compared to where you were in 2018.

“No, I mean I’m always nervous. As soon as I get here, I feel the nerves right when I drive into the tunnel. It’s like as you land and drive into the tunnel, the nerves and anxiety builds up a little bit, which is a great thing because it should be like that. This is a special race to be a part of. I don’t take it for granted. I hate superspeedway racing; but with that said, when they would drop the green every year over the last five years, there was a piece of me just missing it. I feel very fortunate and lucky to be in this position and have this opportunity again. The nerves have built up over the week. I’m sure I’ll struggle to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and basically hurry up to get to (driver) intros. There’s a lot that goes on in the morning for all the drivers, but hurry up and get to intros and get inside the car because the nerves will definitely be there. Once you start the engine, it’s go-time.”

AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Nutrien Ag Solutions Chevrolet, poses on the track during qualifying for the Busch Light Pole at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Both times you’ve ran third here, you started deep. You start deep again tomorrow.. is that a good omen?

“The race is long enough; it doesn’t matter where you start. As I said, the track position is more critical, but if you have a fast car, you can still work your way up there. I think it’s more that you have to pick and choose when you do it because if you kind of go for it and you get kind of tossed to the back, it’s a lot harder to get back up there now. But yeah, if it’s meant to be and we make the right moves – there’s so much luck that goes into this too. You just try to make the right moves and if a wreck happens and you’re part of it, that is what it is. You just don’t want to be the cause of the wreck. That was always my mindset.

We’ll be ready to go. I’m so pumped to be back here. This is a great race for all of us to be a part. We should all feel lucky enough that we get to do this.”

When you approach three-wide situations, how do you really react to that knowing there’s not a lot of room for error?

“Yeah, I mean these cars stall out really easy. So I think if you’re trying to start the third lane, you have to have a massive run. You can’t just pop out and hope a couple of guys go with you and make it work like the old car. This car, you have to make a run; have a big head of stem and generally know that guys will go with you. If you get stuck in the middle three-wide, you have to be careful, especially later in the tire run. But it’s all part of it.”

When you compare the energy of the crowd here at Daytona versus other tracks, what do you find to be a lot more stimulating knowing the history of this track?

“It’s one of the biggest races we have in the world.. the Daytona 500. I feel like if you’re not a motorsports fan, you can still say certain races and they get what it is. You say the Indianapolis 500, they know what that is. You say the Daytona 500, they know what it is. You know if you win the race that you become a part of a legendary group that has won the Daytona 500. You feel that in the crowd, too. The people here – even the people that are first timers that have never been here and are just learning what racing is – they know what the Daytona 500 is. You feel that energy as soon as you wake up tomorrow morning. This place is packed. It’s sold out – infield, grandstands. Not that drivers need any more reason to be pumped up to race the Daytona 500, but you feel the energy in the crowd and that just gives it a little bit more.”

Simulations are great, but can you learn anything from watching previous finishes here?

“Yeah, I’ve watched a lot of in-car and race footage from last year. Just trying to get an understanding of how the runs formulate and what you have to do to put yourself in the right position. But in the end of the day, it’s great to watch all of that and put that in the notebook and the mind, but you have to feel it. You have to be in that position. As we’ve seen many of times with this race, there’s no one way or another to win it. It’s great to be the first car leading off of turn four and we’ve seen people lose it that way. I felt like Austin (Dillon) did a great job last year because they had a big run on him and he did what he had to do to win the race. But yeah, you put all of those notes in your head; but at the end of the day, it’s different every time you’re a part of it. I’ve always said – you make what you think is the best decision in the moment and after, you can always nit-pick on whether it was the right decision. But you give yourself the best opportunity to make that decision. If it works out, it works out.”

The past few days, several of us have had the opportunity to make single-car runs in the Racing Experience cars and figured out what you guys do behind the wheel is probably a little more difficult than what we give you credit for in the past. But how do you guys keep the cars settled without basically bouncing all over each other?

“Well we’re paid not to wreck, so that’s the ultimate goal to try not to wreck (laughs) and it hurts if you do. It’s a challenge. You make a single-car run, a lot of people can do that wide open. It’s not hard to do.

I will say in this car, it was a little more difficult. They bounce around a lot more in qualifying. But yeah, you get three- or four-wide, that’s why we’re supposed to be the best of the best.”

Going back to the trust factor that we hear you guys talk about, with who you’re racing around..

“We don’t trust any of each other.. let’s be honest (laughs). We know who is maybe a little safer and who’s a little more aggressive. But let’s not lie to each other, we don’t trust anyone out there.”

It’s no secret with Kaulig Racing’s Xfinity program, the team’s been dominate at Daytona and Talladega in recent years. How much have you been able to carryover from the Kaulig Xfinity results to prepare for the first multi-car Cup Series run in the Daytona 500?

“The Cup Series is such a challenge; it’s difficult. That’s the point of it. There are 40 of us out there and we’re the best of the best, and that’s why we’re in those seats. It’s a lot more challenging.

A lot of it also goes with ECR, Chevrolet and all of our partners that help us get to that point of why our stuff is so fast on the Xfinity and the Cup side of it. But yeah, it’s a lot more difficult.

I think in the Xfinity Series, part of it is – in complete honesty – there’s not as many good cars in the race, and because of that, you’re able to get a lot of cars that want to hookup with you because they know your car is fast and they just want to go with you. So sometimes it’s even easier to make moves. Although, by the end of my Xfinity side of it, the field figured out they didn’t want the Kaulig Chevy’s linked up together because – whether it was Justin (Haley), myself, and Ross (Chastain); or Ross and Justin; or Jeb (Burton), Daniel (Hemric) and Landon (Cassill) – part of the culture is that we’re all in it together to try and win the race. In the end of the day, sure, you want to be the guy that wins the race. But it sets the tone with Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice and on down the line, that we’re helping each other. I think we showed that constantly in the Xfinity Series. It’s a lot more difficult in the Cup Series. There are a lot of four-car teams that are all really good, so it’ll be a lot more challenging. But myself and Justin (Haley) work so well together, so if we’re upfront, we know we’re going to help each other. Of course we want to be the one that wins the Daytona 500, but if Justin wins and I follow him across the line, I’m taking just as much pride in that as if I’m winning. That’s still the culture and that’s what we’re going to try and do.