AJ Allmendinger doesn’t share the same stock car experience as many of his fellow Sprint Cup competitors.
But what he doesn’t lack is passion.
It was Allmendinger’s passion that pushed him to the limit on Saturday night when cameras caught the racer in a heated exchange with his company‘s namesake, seven-time champion Richard Petty.
Moments earlier, Allmendinger had taken evasive action on Lap 67 in Turn 4 to dodge igniting the big one.
Unfortunately, the move came at his own expense.
“A lot of guys were making it three wide, I was trying to get out of that,” Allmendinger said. “I was riding. I had passed 21 cars in 16 laps. The car was good. I was waiting for everybody to single-file out. I got an opening
“Kyle (Busch) got right up against the wall and he checked up. I was either going to get into him and wreck us all or I could try to avoid him. I got my nose underneath and lost my aero and went for a ride.”
Allmendinger, who is experiencing just his second full season in NASCAR, was enjoying a career-best streak of six consecutive top-15 finishes prior to last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. After scoring a season-high sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway and posting his first career pole at Phoenix in April, Allmendinger was finally getting into a groove in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. His average finish of 11.6 in the five races following the All-Star event was better than those of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and his teammate Kasey Kahne.
Then Daytona happened.
“We knew we had a fast car, but 90 percent of getting into it at Daytona is usually not of your own doing,” Allmendinger said. “I wasn’t trying to be aggressive. I was trying to avoid all that. I just got put in a bad situation. Then Richard walked up to me in the garage. The biggest thing, he thought I was being too aggressive too early.
“I was disappointed. I’m the hardest one on myself. He was frustrated. He’s passionate. So am I. I’d rather have him frustrated than not care at all. I went to walk away — and he told me not to walk away. I tried to get my arm away from his grasp. There was no way to defend the situation. I just wanted to go and cool off.”
According to Robbie Loomis, RPM vice president of competition, the King broke one of his own personal rules against approaching a driver during a race.
“Richard has been in this position more times than anybody as both a driver and an owner,” Loomis said. “He knows the car owner doesn’t talk to a driver after a race or after an accident. You never criticize or condemn someone in public. There’s nothing you can say to anybody that’s going to make them feel worse that they already feel.”
Loomis went through a similar situation at Martinsville Speedway in 1997 with the late Bobby Hamilton not long after the King had retired from the cockpit. The former crew chief contends, “the longer you’re out of the driver’s seat the easier it seems to you. And it isn’t easy.”
Loomis feels that Allmendinger is integral to RPM’s future. He admits that it’s the company’s responsibility “to nurture” the driver. He’s seen Allmendinger “adapt quickly” to a lot of different tracks, including Daytona, which likely added further to the driver’s disappointment.
“The King told me, ‘AJ has a knack for that place. He’s got it figured out,’” Loomis said. “There’s not a lot of people that do.
“You have to take the things that you learn and make it better. I think he’s grown leaps and bounds from where he was in the past. I think the hardest part for AJ is drivers can’t stand to be beaten. You have to be smarter than them because they don’t think you belong here.”
Certainly, Allmendinger has felt the animosity from veteran racers — even under his own roof. After contact with Kahne at Pocono Raceway earlier this season — an incident that collected Greg Biffle in the process -— Allmendinger was chastised in the team meeting the following week in front of all the RPM and Roush Fenway Racing drivers.
Loomis’ goal is to find a way to channel Allmendinger’s energy. The last time the veteran racer witness a driver with a similar desire to win is Kyle Busch during the time when Loomis was crew chief for Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports.
“I think the one person I would put in his category that has as much as passion as AJ right now is Kyle Busch,” Loomis said. “AJ is just as driven, but he’s more charismatic about how he handles adversity. That’s what I love about him. And I want the guy that wants it the most. Those are racers that I want in my seats.
“I think at the end of the day AJ wants to be the guy that takes the 43 back to Victory Lane. I told our guys we put him in that situation and we have to get better at that. He has the passion and the ability. It’s up to us to manage it to get it there."
Allmendinger is in the final year of his contract with RPM. Although he has been offered a renewal, there are other suitors in the Cup garage as well. Not surprisingly, Allmendinger wants to put on the best show possible with the opportunity he has been given.
His first objective is to put Saturday’s incident behind him and move on. His second wish is to put the revered No. 43 back into Victory Lane.
“Richard and I are both so passionate,” Allmendinger said. “It was just one of those heated moments. I was upset. I’m sure Richard was stressed out, too. We’re so close to winning and I believe we’re all on the same page.
“The team is still giving me great equipment. We’re running well. We’re so close to getting the 43 back into Victory Lane. I just can’t wait to get to Chicago and get after it.”