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Thursday Daytona Notebook

AJ Allmendinger tops practice chart in return to NASCAR Xfinity action

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s not hard to fathom why AJ Allmendinger would put aside a fulfilling gig with NBC Sports for a few weeks and race a NASCAR Xfinity Series stock car on road courses.

After all, the road circuits are his specialty, accounting for Allmendinger’s only Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory (at Watkins Glen in 2014) and his only two Xfinity Series wins (Road America and Mid-Ohio in his only two starts in 2013).

But why Daytona, where cars run within inches of each other at 200 mph, and every turn of the wheel can spell disaster?

After all, Allmendinger is enjoying his stint on TV, where, by his count, he has now called races in six different series. In the meantime, he has lowered his golf handicap index to an enviable 6.5.

Nevertheless, Friday’s Circle K Firecracker 250 at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is part of the four-race deal Allmendinger struck with Kaulig Racing, a schedule that includes three road courses—Mid-Ohio (Aug. 10), Road America (Aug. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Sept. 28).

“I don’t know how they talked me into this,” Allmendinger joked about his imminent return at Daytona, where temperatures in the greenhouse of his No. 10 Chevrolet are likely to exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “They asked, ‘Please!’ and I was like, ‘Road courses seem pretty cool.’

“And they said, ‘Let’s do Daytona.’ I said, ‘You sure?’ And they talked me into it.”

All kidding aside, Allmendinger has an impressive record at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. His three Cup series top fives at Daytona are tied for his most at a single track, matching Watkins Glen. Allmendinger’s first career top five came at Daytona. So did his last two, the final one coming in 2018, his last full season with JTG/Daugherty Racing.

And don’t forget, Allmendinger also was the anchor driver of the winning team in the 50th Rolex 24 Hours on the Daytona road course in 2012. So making a return to competition at Daytona isn’t such a stretch for the road course ace. And it helps that Allmendinger has confidence in the equipment he’ll be driving for Kaulig, as he proved in Thursday’s opening practice by topping the speed chart with a lap at 194.902 mph.

“You have to have a fast race car to go out there and have an opportunity to at least put yourself in position to win a race,” he said. “I’ve watched enough of these races, and the way guys run these races is a little bit different, probably a little more aggressive—some young guys—so I’ll try to ease into that as the race goes on.

The revival of Allmendinger’s stock car career started with a phone call.

“I was eating some sandwiches, trying to work on my TV body, and they called me,” Allmendinger said. “They said, ‘Hey, you want to get back in a race car?’ I was like, ‘This sandwich is really good.’ They were looking to do the road course events, and we started talking, and I told them, ‘Hey, I love to race, so whenever you have an opportunity and want me to do that, I’m willing to do that.

“We’ve talked about some other races besides road course races and Daytona, and we’ll kind of see how it plays out.”

BRAD KESELOWSKI SENDS A MESSAGE IN FINAL CUP PRACTICE

In a final Monster Energy Series practice session that featured lap speeds approaching 206 mph, Brad Keselowski sent a message to the rest of the field.

Roughly 28 minutes into Happy Hour on Thursday, Keselowski run up on the bumper of Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, tapped the car twice and sent Byron spinning onto the apron. The incident damaged the nose of Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford and the rear of Byron’s Chevy, but Keselowski was unapologetic.

“I had a big run and (he) put me in a position where I had to lift, and I keep telling these guys I’m not lifting,” said Keselowski, who previously has taken issue with other drivers block at superspeedways. “I hate it for his team that they have to work on their car, and so does ours, but just trying to send a message that I’m not lifting.”

“I’m tired of getting wrecked at plate tracks. I’ve been wrecked out of four of the last five races, quite honestly, because I’ve let people pull moves on me like that. They’re all watching now. They know.”

After examining the damage to Byron’s car, crew chief Chad Knaus opted for a backup car. Accordingly, Byron will start from the rear of the field in Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“I mean, it’s practice,” a frustrated Byron said after the incident. “You know, I get it, but I don’t think that was really necessary to turn us there… It’s not like I changed four lanes down the backstretch and blocked him.

“I was just kind of holding my lane, and he just used his run to drive into my left rear. That’s all right—at least I saved it.”

— NASCAR Wire Service —