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Last Saturday morning at Portland International Raceway, AJ Allmendinger's frustration was obvious.

Widely expected to compete to win on a road course -- something he has done more than any other driver in the history of the NASCAR Xfinity Series -- Allmendinger started the day off OK in practice, but an adjustment for qualifying that did not work left him and his team dissatisfied with their first attempt and prompted them to make a second run. That run saw Allmendinger go through gear oil left by another car, sending him into the wall and forcing him to a backup car for the race -- which he was lucky to take the green flag for, as radio problems on the grid prevented him from leaving pit road with the rest of the field.

Developments like the start of the day in Portland, and other such occurrences throughout the 2024 season so far, are hardly what Allmendinger or Kaulig Racing had expected. Expected to contend for the Xfinity championship while continuing to build their Cup program off the high point of Allmendinger's win at the Charlotte Roval a year ago, Kaulig had yet to win an Xfinity race entering Portland, with no wins for Allmendinger entering June -- compared to five wins in each of his last two full Xfinity seasons -- serving as the biggest sore point.

Their response to that adversity, however, was revealing: Allmendinger finished fourth despite struggling to get a handle on his backup car, while Shane van Gisbergen earned Kaulig's first win of the season and Josh Williams finished seventh to put all three Kaulig cars inside the top 10. And it allowed the 42-year-old veteran and Kaulig team leader to appreciate the day for what it was and what it could do.

"Days like that is, I think, what brings us together. It's great when you win races, everybody's happy. And it was really fantastic for SVG to get the win just to get that energy through the shop," Allmendinger told CBS Sports. "We know (Van Gisbergen's) gonna be good on the road courses, the ovals it's a learning experience. Josh has kind of had ups and downs to start the year, and so have we. So just the morale inside the shop has been, I think, a struggle a little bit just because we haven't had a year so far as an organization that we want. So to get that win through SVG is a big deal for all the men and women there.

"And on our side of it, we definitely are pushing and we're trying to get better. We're not where we want to be. But what is great about the format that NASCAR sets up, all we need is to make the playoffs, and if you get hot in the playoffs you can still go win the championship. So we still have time to fix this."

Thought to be one of the ascending race teams in NASCAR, Kaulig Racing has seemingly hit a lull in its rise to powerhouse status. Their Cup program has only had four top 10s all season between two cars, and a single win with five top fives and 13 top 10s between three Xfinity cars stands as a much more pedestrian mark compared to the past several years. Team leadership knows this, as team president Chris Rice has openly stated that Kaulig's performance has not been good enough.

Their win at Portland doesn't make for a panacea, as it reinforces much of what the team expected in terms of having a strong road course program thanks to skilled road racers like Allmendinger and Van Gisbergen. It is, however, a very welcome thing -- particularly with the logistics of an extended West Coast trip keeping much of their crew on the other side of the country preparing for this weekend at Sonoma.

"Anytime you win a race, I don't care if it's an oval or a road course, the morale is better," Allmendinger said. "It's a little bit challenging for the road crew because they're out on the West Coast, they didn't come home, so they are prepping the Sonoma cars and getting them ready. But yeah, it makes it better for everybody when you win.

"So it's a good week this week at Kaulig Racing. We know going to Sonoma that we can go out there and have an opportunity to try and go win another race."

Good weeks at the racetrack are helpful to Kaulig given that they have also had to fight against the Silly Season rumor mill. In recent weeks, Kaulig had been the subject of rumors that it would either be sold to or merge with Trackhouse Racing, an idea given credence by the fact that the two teams have already partnered for Shane van Gisbergen's Xfinity Series efforts. Chris Rice has emphatically denied such an idea, most recently a week ago during an appearance on the "Door Bumper Clear" podcast.

When asked about whether such rumors have served as a distraction or demoralizing force, Allmendinger mentioned Rice's transparency as well as the commitment of team owner Matt Kaulig to his employees, specifically citing during COVID when he continued to pay everyone their full salaries despite other teams in NASCAR cutting back on wages.

"Matt has never once even let on, ever, since I've been here, to any of us ever that he wants to sell the team. He loves NASCAR, he loves his race teams, and he loves all of the people that are at the race teams," Allmendinger said. "He's never made it even questioned or came out and said, 'Hey, this might be a possibility.' I think that's more just stories that go around in NASCAR. 

"For anybody that's worked in this sport, we know in especially this day and age with how many news outlets that we have that rumors get started and people just connect, 'Oh, SVG is at Trackhouse, they're working together, they're selling to Trackhouse or they're partnering up.' It's just the way it is.

"I don't think it messes with morale at all because we all see the stories, right? Whether they're fake or real or there's some truth behind it or there's no truth behind it, it's just part of the sport that we live in and the news outlets that we have now."

What gives Kaulig Racing the space to try and improve over the second half of the season and improve long-term is the support of their sponsors like Celsius, which has gone from being a product sponsor at their race shop to one of NASCAR's most major new marketing presences. Celsius has sponsored Kaulig's drivers as well as multiple other drivers and teams throughout NASCAR, and it has also become ubiquitous at the racetrack through the many samples of their product offered in tubs throughout the garage area.

Celsius will once again adorn Allmendinger's Xfinity Series car this Saturday, as he looks for his first win of the 2024 season while also pulling double duty and making his fifth Cup start of the year.

"To see over the six-year period of what Celsius has grown to, not only with us but throughout the sport, and I think it's a staple now at the racetrack when you see fans, crewpeople, media, we have all the fridges and just the product sitting there for everybody to come out and grab and use," Allmendinger said. "So Celsius has been a big part of the last couple of years. I've really enjoyed being able to win races with them and celebrate with them, get them their first wins in NASCAR. To try and help be a small part of them growing not only in the sport, not only in North America, but my sister-in-law, she travels the world a lot and she talks about seeing Celsius all throughout the world.

"That is a huge deal. And just to see how much it's grown, hopefully we can keep working together. Because as we know, this is what NASCAR's all about. When fans get behind a product, that makes the product a lot bigger. And without the fans enjoying that product, we don't have that sponsor a part of the sport and part of our organization. I think as we've seen over the last couple of years, it's a huge part of the sport now."