Allmendinger senses good times ahead
AJ Allmendinger doesn’t want to be that guy — the one driver in the top 25 in the Sprint Cup standings without a breakthrough win.
With NASCAR in the thick of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, there’s plenty at stake for the 12 drivers contending for the championship. But Allmendinger might have even more to prove after finishing 13th in the regular season with a team that was near extinction at the end of 2010 before a new ownership group assumed the debt at Richard Petty Motorsports.
Allmendinger’s moment could come Sunday in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. Affectionately known as “the Monster Mile,” Dover’s 24-degree-banked track is Dinger’s favorite venue on the NASCAR circuit.
And one certainly can sense that in the Los Gatos, Calif., native’s attitude.
“I think this is a chance to win,” said Allmendinger, 29, who qualified seventh Saturday with a lap of 158.430 mph. “I don’t know if you ever feel like you’re going to win here.
“There is a lot that goes into these races to try to have a chance to win, and I just know the Best Buy Ford will be fast enough and we’ll have a chance to at least be up there. Then you just have to hope that everything goes your way.”
That didn’t happen here in the spring. Allmendinger qualified second but led only one lap before his engine expired on Lap 166 — his only engine failure this season.
In this race last year, Allmendinger also started second and led 143 laps before a right rear tire went flat and knocked the No. 43 Ford out of contention. Allmendinger was forced to settle for 10th.
But a lot has changed this season since Greg Erwin took over as Allmendinger’s crew chief at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July. The veteran skipper took over the 17th-place flagship team at RPM and helped elevate Allmendinger four positions in the standings in the first five races.
“I think AJ is a little more consistent than I had an impression of him being as a driver,” Erwin said. “If I give him something that’s close, he’s going to drive it with really good speed at most of these places. He’s more of a driver than I first thought looking at him from a distance.
“Probably the only thing he is missing is the repetition of going to these places and watching them change through track conditions and from spring to summer or spring to fall. This is certainly one of the tougher places that we go to, and he seems to have this place figured out, so we should be all right.”
After five consecutive finishes of 12th or better this season, Allmendinger struggled in the first two Chase for the Championship races with finishes of 27th and 21st. His greatest challenge has been dialing in the car and finding the sweet spot, but overall the initial results for the Allmendinger-Erwin pairing have been promising.
And Allmendinger believes the more time he spends with Erwin, the stronger the team will be.
“The thing that I like is we just run a ton of laps,” Allmendinger said. “For me, although I’ve been here for five years, I’m still fairly young when it comes to finding what I want in a race car and finding what these race cars want. It’s only been eight weeks with Greg, so the more laps we can run, the better it’s going to be for all of us.
“The weekends are really good. We have fast race cars during the weekends. The last couple of weeks we haven’t been as good as we’ve wanted to be during the race, and that’s where a little of the confusion has been for me, particularly when the race conditions vary so greatly from practice. So that’s been part of it.”
Allmendinger seems to sense he’s getting close.
“It’s not like we show up and we’re slow,” he said. “We’ve been fast, we‘ve just missed it a little in the race. I don’t think that will be the case tomorrow. The conditions will be close to what they were today. The big thing is how much rubber will be on the racetrack and whether we get a lot of rain. But I think we’ll be good tomorrow.
“This is a place that I always enjoy. I love it. It’s my favorite racetrack. Hopefully, we can have a good run tomorrow and at the end we have a chance to win the thing. If not, we’re just gonna get the best we can out of it.”
Erwin, 41, spent four years with veteran Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing, so working with a young driver such as Allmendinger has been a departure for him. But Allmendinger’s energy is invigorating, and Erwin sees the potential of his driver and the No. 43 Best Buy team.
“He’s excited about being here,” Erwin said. “He spent a week telling me about this place and all the cool things about it — so it’s really soaked in, and you can’t beat that.
“If he could get that way about every place we go, you’d have somebody that’s really experienced, and that’s what you’re racing against with all the veterans. They have all their little tricks and things that they do at all the racetracks that really help them out.”
David Ragan is doing all he can to hold up his side of the bargain.
As a driver, that means winning races and qualifying for Chases. This year, Ragan won the July race at Daytona but missed the Chase by 77 points.
With finishes of fourth, 11th and seventh in the past three races, Ragan has vaulted from 23rd to 17th in the points standings. Still, his future in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford is uncertain for next season.
Roush “has always prided itself as a five-car team or a four-car team,” Ragan said, and despite sponsorship woes — the Nos. 6 and 17 Fords are in need of sponsors — he doesn’t see the team’s lineup changing.
“You know, I don’t ask them every single day, but certainly every week or two I have conversations with Steve (Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing) and the sales department and Jack (Roush) about our plans for next year, because I feel as if I’m as big a part of that as I can be,” Ragan said.
“We’ve had some good meetings with potential sponsors and different things going forward. They’re working hard; I don’t have any specifics to talk about. I know they’ve had some good meetings, some good conversations, but until they have something signed, sealed and delivered and the check’s in the bank, it’s hard to take wishful thinking and turn it into something.
“ . . . The biggest thing that I need to do is continue to do my job on the racetrack. That’s getting top-10s, lead laps, top-fives and ultimately try to get a few more wins.”
Saturday, Ragan qualified 19th at Dover with a lap of 157.439 mph. In the spring, he qualified 14th at the Monster Mile and felt he had a top-10 car before he wrecked getting onto pit road.
“It seems like every one of the drivers have some type of an issue over their careers at Dover getting onto pit road, and I hope that was my one issue,” Ragan said. “I tore up my race car, and we were running in the top 10 when I did that. Hopefully we can get past that, but I’m happy with my car.”
After recording his 36th Nationwide Series career win and not exactly sticking his back flip from the window of his race car Saturday, Carl Edwards said he will not attempt the gymnastic feat should he win Sunday.
“There’s too much banking, I don’t like it,” Edwards said.
Edwards won the Dover Sprint Cup race in 2007. He has a remarkable average finish of 7.6 on the Monster Mile and has completed 99.9 percent of all laps raced.
2: Buschs who will start in the top five for the AAA 400 — Kurt qualified second, Kyle fifth.
6: Races at Dover in which Jeff Gordon has started outside the top 30. He will roll off 34th on Sunday.
22: Points advantage for Ricky Stenhouse, who leads the Nationwide Series standings.
52: Races since polesitter Martin Truex Jr. started a race in the No. 1 spot.
Landon Cassill, upon climbing out of his car after a 25th-place qualifying run:
“I feel like a man when I drive this track . . . it’s better than having sex."