Pole is good, but AJ wants more
Penske Racing did not miss a beat in time trials at Kansas Speedway on Saturday.
Less than a year after the No. 22 Shell Dodge topped time trials for the STP 400 with Kurt Busch behind the wheel, AJ Allmendinger repeated the feat Saturday with a lap of 175.993 mph in just his eighth start with the team.
His Penske teammates, Sam Hornish and Brad Keselowski, qualified 10th and 11th, respectively.
The pole, Allmendinger’s first with the team since replacing Busch in December, is a milestone of sorts. Traditionally, Allmendinger, 30, has exhibited steady progress through each level of his development. And his transition at Penske Racing has been no different.
“Any time that you do something together, especially when it’s our first-time thing, it’s really important,” Allmendinger said.
“We still have to go out tomorrow (Sunday). If we go out tomorrow and struggle, it’s not going to mean as much. … We were close at Bristol, and to get one here, because it was actually a little bit surprising for myself, it’s always a good thing.
“It takes little things to build momentum. It’s not one giant thing. It’s just little things at a time. Hopefully, a Top 10 run tomorrow. Hopefully, we get the chance to win the race. Just a solid day tomorrow, just little things to keep building on. We’re getting closer. We’re definitely not where we all want to be right now — running up front every weekend. Every step we’re getting closer.”
Under the direction of crew chief Todd Gordon, Allmendinger started on the front row at Bristol on March 18 and led 54 laps — second only to the 143 circuits he led at Dover in 2010. Two weeks later, Allmendinger finished a career-high second at Martinsville Speedway — his top Sprint Cup finish in 158 starts.
“Todd Gordon and I are jelling together as driver-crew chief,” Allmendinger said. “The whole team is jelling. More than anything, I just love being a part of this race team. I put a lot of pressure on my shoulders to go out there and win races, win poles for these guys, because they’re so use to it. I put a lot of that on me.”
Although Allmendinger called the pole a momentum builder, the greatest challenge for the team is finding consistency throughout an entire race. At Martinsville, Allmendinger was able to overcome adversity and the team persevered to keep the No. 22 Dodge in striking distance and finished second.
Expectations are high considering that both Penske Racing Dodges qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season. And it weighs on Allmendinger that he’s the only driver inside the top 20 who has yet to win a Cup race — particularly given Brad Keselowski’s recent success.
But Keselowski knows that, with the opportunity he’s been given at Penske Racing, it’s just a matter of time.
“We just need to get faster throughout a whole race,” Allmendinger said.
“We’re still working together, and I think that’s what people don’t really understand. It’s tough to be a brand-new crew chief in the Cup Series along with a driver coming to a race team for the first time. To figure out what we need together and things like that.
“The good thing is that the Penske organization builds fast race cars. Dodge is a huge supporter or ours. We know when we do figure it out. We have the potential to win a lot of races. It’s just tough getting to that point. I put all the pressure on my shoulders to be there now.
“The great thing is that Mr. Penske and everybody in the organization is patience. They’re like, ‘It takes time.’ It’s just because these guys deserve it. They’re used to running up front.
“We’ll get there. It’s a lot of work. We’re not quite there yet. But when we do get there, we’ll have the chance to win a lot of races.”
TO PAVE OR NOT REPAVE
Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren didn’t want another Daytona debacle on his hands. Or another Martinsville Speedway miscue.
Memories of the track disintegrating in the 2010 Daytona 500 still are fresh in fans’ minds. And Jeff Gordon will never forget the 2004 Martinsville race when a chunk of the track destroyed his grille — and any opportunity he had to win the event after leading 180 of 500 laps.
The fist-size chunk of asphalt Warren carried with him on Saturday told part of the tale. The picture of the gaping 5-inch-plus hole discovered Friday night told the rest. With the use of a polygem, track workers fixed the area before qualifying on Saturday.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed that no more asphalt comes out,” Warren said. “Certainly not during the event.”
The track is to undergo a facelift immediately after Sunday’s STP 400. Not only will the surface be removed, engineers will reconfigure the current 15-degree banking to variable levels stretching from 17 to 20 degrees.
“Given the history we had in our first years when the track was opened — and a somewhat deserved reputation of being a single-grooved race track — we badly wanted to avoid going back to that situation,” Warren said. “The best thing you can do to keep that from happening is doing the variable banking.
“While the geometry of our track is a little bit different because of the shape, the banking will be very similar to Homestead. If you talk to any of the drivers or most fans, they think that’s a fantastic track to race on, and we think we’re going to have that here when we’re done and racing for the Chase in the fall.”
Kansas’ spring date was moved from June to April to accommodate the project, which will be competed long before the Oct. 21 race.
5 Toyotas will start in the top 10 for the STP 500.
3 of six starts at Kansas, Joey Logan has qualified in the top 10. He’ll start third Sunday.
48 points earned by Jimmie Johnson in the last two Kansas races — most on the tour.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s seventh-place qualifying effort was tops among Hendrick Motorsports drivers. He credits the No. 48 Lowe’s team with an assist on the set-up.
“We were really happy with our race trim, but when we went into qualifying trim, we were six- to seven-tenths off,” Earnhardt said. “Just terrible. And so we borrowed a lot of notes from Jimmie (Johnson) and the No. 48 team and put together a set-up that got us a great run.”