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In a NASCAR Cup Series race designed for all the drama and emotion to come from playoff contenders, AJ Allmendinger drove one of the sport's smallest teams into victory lane and stole the show.

Just like that, the frustration of a difficult year with Kaulig Racing turned into fun for a 41-year-old that never expected to return to Cup full-time.

Allmendinger jumped into the crowd to celebrate following a dominant victory in the Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte. In between were screams of joy and plenty of tears, an emotional come to Jesus played out in public with tens of thousands of NASCAR fans in the pews.

"I hate crying right now," Allmendinger said in the moment. "But it's a freaking Cup race, man. You don't know when it's ever going to happen again."

Such uncertainty has been the theme of 'Dinger's racing career, as he struggled to find a team that fit his personality after jumping over from open wheel in 2007. The misery lasted a decade, with Allmendinger collecting one playoff appearance and just one Cup win until Kaulig picked him up off the scrap heap after the 2018 season.

"I think he got run through the ringer so many times," Kaulig president Chris Rice said of Allmendinger. "Nobody ever dug into his life and how he is and how he acts enough to understand him."

Rice did, harnessing the emotional energy of a driver who acts like he's in his mid-20s brought to the table. A limited schedule of NASCAR Xfinity Series races at age 37 turned into a full-time effort, leading to 15 total victories and a Championship 4 appearance in 2021. That same year, dipping their toe into Cup produced an improbable win at vaunted Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the springboard to what became a full-time (albeit underperforming) Cup ride in 2023.

Allmendinger is used to that type of struggle middle-of-the-pack teams face. What's different now? He finds moments to smile through it.

"The key to AJ is he knows we have his back no matter what," Rice explained. "If you think about a stat, he's won [at least one NASCAR] race [a year] over the last five years. He's won every single year he's signed a contract for Kaulig Racing.

"That's why we have his back."

That belief redeemed one of NASCAR's most energetic personalities. For a sport often criticized for drivers acting corporate, Allmendinger's heartfelt love for his team should come as a welcome breath of fresh air.

"They've saved my life," Allmendinger said of Kaulig. "They've saved my happiness… If 2018 would have been it, I did some cool things, but there's always a -- God, I wish I could have done some more.

"Now if they wake up tomorrow and they're like, hey, you're old and you're done, I can actually just be happy with everything that's happened now in my career. Without them, I wouldn't have had that. I would have always had that little bit of misery of not doing as much as I wanted."

Allmendinger's future remains uncertain for 2024. He turns 42 in December and the team may choose to realign their roster at the Cup level. No matter what the final decision is, though, don't expect this driver's second act to finish up anywhere else.

Until then?

"If we won," Allmendinger said, "We [talked about how] we might not [race at] Vegas because we're going to be hung over the whole week … we'll be in Vegas. I'm not sure we'll be at the racetrack."

Traffic Report

Green: Toyota. Four of the drivers who advanced into the playoffs Round of 8 drive Camrys. Denny Hamlin moved on even after a crash while regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell get much-needed resets. Even 23XI Racing squeaked a driver through for the first time in their short history: Tyler Reddick won the pole and ran sixth, the only driver who entered this race under the cutline to make it through.

Yellow: RFK Racing. Chris Buescher continues a dream season, as he's onto the Round of 8 with his sixth top-11 finish in six road course races this year for RFK. His co-owner and teammate, Brad Keselowski, was not so fortunate. Reddick's success knocked out the 2012 Cup champion who had a miserable day, spinning out and extending his career winless drought on this track type.

Red: Chase Briscoe. A driver who came into Cup touting his road course prowess failed to lead a single lap on them in 2023. Finishing 28th at the Roval track that saved his career in 2018, Briscoe struggled to just a 22.2-average finish on this track type in 2023.

Speeding Ticket: Playoff storylines. You could argue the four drivers eliminated after Charlotte were four of the sport's most charismatic. Gone is Kyle Busch, a two-time champion who spent the season plotting revenge on Toyota after an offseason jump to Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet. Ross Chastain was the sport's breakthrough driver in 2022, a fan-favorite series of aggressive moves culminating in a runner-up finish in the title race.

There's Keselowski, failing in his attempt to be the first owner/driver champion since Tony Stewart back in 2011. And Bubba Wallace ended a landmark run as the first African American driver in the sport to make it this far.


Wallace was at least keeping himself in the mix during the Round of 12 finale until this inadvertent contact between Daniel Suarez and Austin Cindric behind him changed everything.

Both Suarez and Cindric were unavailable for comment after the race. But Wallace harbors no ill will toward a situation out of his control, understanding his odds were long to begin with after missing out on an opportunity two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway.

"What I analyze," Wallace said, "Is what could I have done and not be in that situation? Could I have been faster and passed another car? How to be better to not put yourself – when you're racing around there with squirrels. It is what it is. Just didn't have enough and it wasn't in the cards."

As a driver who struggles with confidence, Wallace handled the disappointment of a Round of 12 that slipped through his grasp better than at any time in his Cup career.