News & Media

Happy Hour: Allmendinger looks to break through in big way

September 09, 2011, Dave Rodman,

RICHMOND, Va. -- One thing's for certain this weekend at Richmond International Raceway. If A.J. Allmendinger wins Saturday night's Wonderful Pistachios 400, he'll no longer be able to wander incognito through the Cup Series garage.

"I feel like over the last six weeks we have been getting stronger and kind of flying under the radar," Allmendinger said before Friday's two practice sessions. "Our last four finishes have been eighth, 10th, 11th and 12th. We have been right there. As a race team I feel like we are getting better."

A.J. Allmendinger

Crew chief comparison
Lead Lap Fin.116
Avg. Start.15.115.8
Avg. Fin.17.113.6

A.J.'s Chase scenario

A.J. Allmendinger needs a win and movement up the points to nab the tie-breaker. He is 11 points behind Denny Hamlin, who currently holds the last wild-card spot.

Allmendinger, who comes into Richmond 13th in the Sprint Cup standings and smack in the middle of a complex Chase for the Sprint Cup wild-card qualifying format, already has proven he can contend here.

In his past two Richmond starts, he's finished eighth in this event a year ago and seventh this past May. Those finishes mark his consistent improvement on the fast, .75-mile oval since he made his debut in the spring of 2007.

But in the confusing scenario, the bottom line is simple: Allmendinger has to record his first career win Saturday night to score the coveted spot in the Chase.

Ironically, Allmendinger's Richard Petty Motorsports teammate, Marcos Ambrose, scored his first career victory four races ago at Watkins Glen, and if Ambrose wins Saturday night he'll get the Chase spot (assuming that victory vaults him into the top 20 in points; he's currently in 21st, seven points behind No. 20 Paul Menard).

"Yeah, it is pretty simple -- we have to win and get a little bit of help," Allmendinger said. "We don't have to worry about everyone else and where they're at, points-wise, until you cross the finish line -- and unless we win it doesn't matter.

"I [wish] we had about three or four more races before the Chase started because I feel like we are starting to get there and be a contending race team. It is pretty simple. We go out there and try to win the race and let the cards fall where they may fall."

Allmendinger took a critical first step in Friday's opening practice, when he had the fifth-best lap behind red-hot Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears and Clint Bowyer, who's as badly in need of a win as is Allmendinger.

In Happy Hour, Allmendinger appeared to be right where he wanted to be in race trim. Even though he was 21st on the time sheet in the session led by Carl Edwards, Allmendinger's average lap time was third-best, behind Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick.

That indicates the progress Allmendinger feels his RPM team's making.

"I felt like at the beginning of the year we weren't too bad and then we kind of hit a lull in the middle of the season -- when we were off, we were really off [and] had a couple of races where we finished like 25th and 27th or something like that," Allmendinger said. "I felt like our consistency wasn't where it needed to be and we struggled with that."

That resulted in a crew chief change, after Greg Erwin was taken out of the chief mechanic's role at Biffle's Roush Fenway Racing squad. Erwin joined Allmendinger's crew before the Brickyard 400, and after a two-race break-in period the string Allmendinger cited began.

"I feel like the addition of Greg Erwin over the last six weeks we've been stronger," Allmendinger said. "We're progressing better than we had been and I feel that as we keep getting stronger we are a seventh-, eighth- to 13th-place race team right now."

Allmendinger praised former crew chief Mike Shiplett for his organizational and car-preparation skills. But he said Erwin's race-winning, championship-contending experience was needed more.

"We are one of the race cars with the most laps every practice session now, which is good for me because I am still learning out there," Allmendinger said. "During the races, the way [Erwin] calls the races -- he knows when to maybe take a big swing at it and when not to take a big swing at it -- whether I want to or not.

"Overall I think it is just the experience he has brought and his mentality has been good for the race team and for me. I think the organization, especially on the 43 side of it -- they were really close to Mike so I was nervous how they would take to the change. But everyone has been really good of fitting in with the change and moving forward with the race team."

Allmendinger was so pleased with his car's balance, he has no qualms about racing at night after practicing only in daylight. His Practice 1 speed puts him in a favorable qualifying draw (he'll be the 42nd of 46 cars to take his laps).

Richmond: Speeds

Practice 1
2.J. Johnson 125.962 21.435
3.C. Mears 125.927 21.441
4.C. Bowyer 125.921 21.442
5.Allmendinger 125.611 21.495
2.M. Martin 122.366 22.065
3.Dale Jr. 122.166 22.101
4.Ky. Busch121.814 22.165
5.C. Bowyer 121.797 22.168
21. Allmendinger 120.897 22.333

"I really am satisfied with where our car is," Allmendinger said. "The Best Buy Ford's been quick -- obviously we started in qualifying trim and it's usually important to go fairly late here, when it gets cooler during qualifying. The car was dialed in from the start."

But it was race trim that pleases him the most.

"We've been working on race trim and it's been close," Allmendinger said. "Obviously the track changes a lot as we go into the nighttime but it's been really balanced all day -- we've made changes and done stuff, and the car's been fast no matter what we do.

"The way I always look at it, if you've got a good, balanced race car during the day and it's pretty quick, there's no reason you shouldn't go as quick, during the night, as everybody else. But it's been really fast and a lot of the credit goes to the guys back at the shop, building great race cars and to Greg and the guys here at the race track making good adjustments."

And that puts Allmendinger on the cusp of something potentially great, in his fifth full-time season in stock cars after leaving a successful Indy car career.

"Hopefully, as we keep getting stronger -- whether we make the Chase or not -- we can take the last 10 races and contend inside the top 10 on a consistent basis."

But Allmendinger isn't about to concede anything just yet.

"We're always working [on the car] and I wouldn't every say you're comfortable knowing where you are," Allmendinger said. "The way I look at it, I can see people with nervous faces about the Chase; but nobody expected us to be here so there's probably more pressure on a guy like Bowyer or Biffle that are supposed to be in the Chase.

"So we're just gonna have fun with it. If we've got a chance to win this thing we're gonna go do it."

If he doesn't achieve it at Richmond, Allmendinger said he has some other bright spots on the near horizon.

"There are races coming up, like Loudon and Dover; that we've been really good at and maybe [can] get a win," Allmendinger said. "We're getting there but I wish we had a few more races before the Chase starts.

"The Chase doesn't define our season. If we don't make it, we can take those last 10 races and have a chance to run up front every weekend. If we get to Homestead and are a lot better than where we were last season, I'll be happy with that."