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Crunch time for Allmendinger; playoff berth at stake at WGI

August 3, 2018

FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2017, file photo, A.J. Allmendinger is introduced prior to the NASCAR Cup Series 300 auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. Allmendinger knows his only chance to make NASCAR's playoffs is to win a race, and the road course at Watkins Glen gives him his best shot. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — AJ Allmendinger isn’t exactly sure how it happened. More than a month later he’s still beating himself up over it, though.

“I just missed a shift,” Allmendinger said Friday at Watkins Glen International. “It’s something I’ve never really done before. It’s still on my mind, for sure.”

That critical mistake happened in late June at Sonoma, one of two road courses NASCAR’s Cup series competes on every year, and it hurt. Allmendinger, one of the top road racers in NASCAR, led qualifying after the first round and ended up fifth behind Kyle Larson, then won the first stage of the race. The missed shift came about a third of the way through the 110-lap event and blew the engine on Allmendinger’s No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevy, ending his day.

“They’re the easiest things I’ve ever shifted in my life. For the thousands of times that I’ve shifted like that, it was something I’ve never really thought of,” Allmendinger said. “Probably a little lackadaisical on second to third because it’s so natural.”

Allmendinger has a chance to atone for that mistake Sunday at The Glen. He’s high on the list of favorites because of his prowess on the twisting tracks, honed during his days in open-wheel competition. The one and only win of his Cup career came four years ago at Watkins Glen in his 213th start in the series when he held off Marcos Ambrose in a fender-bending duel at the end .

Allmendinger beat the best in Ambrose, who was dominant in NASCAR’s top two series at The Glen, and that victory made JTG Daugherty Racing eligible for the postseason.

Time to duplicate that feat because a win is the only way the No. 47 will qualify for the playoffs.

“I’ve come here and put a lot of pressure on myself,” Allmendinger said. “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 more difficult.

“If there’s a chance to win, we’ll take the chance. If not, we’ll do the best that we can ... and get everything I can out of the weekend. If I do that, then I can be satisfied.”

Only five races remain in the Cup regular season, and this year the playoffs will include the road course at Charlotte. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Kyle Larson, and Brad Keselowski are entered in Saturday’s Zippo 200 in the Xfinity Series. All are securely in the top 16 in points, the cutoff for the postseason, but none has won a Cup race this year, so some extra seat time on the 2.45-mile, high-speed layout can’t hurt.

“I just need to put it all together,” said Keselowski, who has finished second three straight times (2011-13) at The Glen. “Putting it all together on a road course is something I haven’t done (in Cup), but I’ve been really close. I think we had the speed to win here probably four times. Just didn’t put it all together.”

As NASCAR struggles with lagging attendance at its tracks across the country, Watkins Glen International continues to hold its own. The historic natural terrain road course in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York was voted the best NASCAR track for the third straight time in a poll conducted by USA Today and released Friday. Track president Michael Printup said all but 300 of the 38,000 grandstand seats were sold, and the track has added decks at two of the turns that sold out quickly.

With sunshine in the forecast for Sunday’s race, the turnout is expected to match the most recent years, which means a crowd in excess of 90,000.

“You can feel that atmosphere on Sunday,” Allmendinger said. “You start walking around to do your sponsor stuff, there’s people everywhere. They pump me up when you see that big crowd show up at a racetrack. For so many reasons, it makes it fun to be here.”

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