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Pedley: Allmendinger Finally Finds Stability

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, December 22 2011

A.J. Allmendinger will finally be able to build his career on stable ground. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

AJ Allmendinger has long been on this unwritten list of drivers that I keep. The list that is filed under the heading of “Wonder What They Could Do If They Drove For A Top Team?”

On Wednesday, the Allmendinger file was moved to the “Now We’ll Find Out” folder.

That’s because, of course, the young Californian was hired to drive the Chase-tested No. 22 Dodge of well-funded and super-respected Penske Racing.

Allmendinger’s pro career has been intriguing since its start.

It began in open wheel as he took the usual American route of starting in lesser formula series and making his way up to the big boy series.

And there was usually success along the way; he was rookie of the year in Toyota Atlantic and then in CART/Champ Car. In 2006, he won five times in CART and finished third in points in those big, wonderful high-horsepower monsters.

From there, it was on to NASCAR where he debuted in the Camping World Truck Series. His Cup career began in 2007.

The last three seasons he has driven full schedules for teams owned by Richard Petty. Almendinger’s Cup career has been one of steady progress and was capped by last year’s 15th-place finish in points and

AJ Allmendinger is now a Penske driver. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

10 top-10 finishes for Richard Petty Motorsports.

But Allmendinger’s career has also – almost from the start – been plagued by insecurity: Either the series or the teams for which he was driving always seemed to be built over seeping landfills.

His entire career may have been summed up best by his 2006 Champ Car season. Three races (and three-top 10s) into the season, and just hours after getting married, he was dropped by RuSport and replaced by veteran Cristiano da Matta. Allmendinger was quickly hired by a seemingly more stable Forsythe Racing team. He won his first three races with Forsythe and his career appeared to be headed for solid ground. But, Allmendinger was pitched a low-ball offer for 2007 from the team and he opted to head to NASCAR and drive trucks for Red Bull.

Allmendinger was a late entry into the Replace Kurt Busch At Penske Sweepstakes. That was because just days ago, the Petty team learned that one of its key sponsors, Best Buy, was opting out.

Best Buy’s decision may have been the best thing that ever happened to Allmendinger, who turned 30 years old last week. He was rushed into a Penske interview and named driver of the No. 22 Dodge on Wednesday.

And suddenly, stability – as much stability as is possible in this era of racing – and top-shelf tools were Allmendinger’s.

What a feeling, he said during a teleconference late Wednesday afternoon.

“One of the biggest things that I’ve wanted in a race team is stability,” Allmendinger said. “Just going through the process and the things that we’ve had to go through to get to this point and the things that I’ve been up against basically my whole five years in the Sprint Cup Series, leads me to this point – to find an organization that has stability, and obviously the whole Penske organization has a ton of stability and great sponsors. Walking through the shop, just the way everything is laid out and presented is absolutely amazing and something I’d never seen before.

“To get this opportunity is – I know where I’m at and the level of my career – and it’s do or die. This is the next step to try to be one of those top Sprint Cup drivers, and that’s what I want to do. I feel like this is going to be the best place to do it, and just the way this organization is laid out is absolutely amazing.

“I’m excited. Walking through the shop for the first time and looking at some of the cars and meeting some of the people, just how positive everybody is at this race team is something that is – it just makes me feel good showing up to it.”

What Penske gets out of the deal is potential. More potential to do well right away than if the team had

A.J. Allmendinger won the 2008 Sprint Showdown with Red Bull. In 2012, he will be aiming for a Chase berth with Penske Racing. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

gone with the other drivers being considered – David Ragan, David Reutiman and Brian Vickers; all of whom had been given good shots by very good teams but just never were able to make Chases or consistently win races.

Replacing Busch will not be easy. As volcanic as he was, Busch was a winner.

I suggested to Penske Racing team president Tim Cindric on Thursday that the rapid development of driver Brad Keselowski, combined with a terrific year by Busch, appeared to have pushed Penske Racing to the level it had been shooting for since it went to a multi-car operation 14 years ago.

Cindric responded, “I think you hit it exactly on the head. And regardless of what type of racing it is, when you can show up at the racetrack and the guys feel like they have a chance ‘As long as I feel like I’m competitive and I can show up at the racetrack thinking one of my cars might win today, that’s what drives us.’

“You’re right. Midway through the season, from that point on, Brad and Kurt really built off of each other, and Steve (Addington) and Paul (Wolfe) were putting cars together, and the guys were really clicking as far as showing up at the racetrack and us thinking that we had a chance to qualify up front and we had a chance to win the race. And really that’s the definition of, in our minds, when you think you start to have it right, and then it just becomes a question of who executes the best at that point in time.”

The followup question to that concerned Allmendinger’s ability to pick up where Busch left off.

“Well,” Cindric said, “I think you have to be realistic, and I think we have to hit singles in the beginning before we can worry about hitting the doubles and triples and the home runs. There’s no, I guess, preconceived notion that we’re going to walk into this thing and just hit the ground running. We’re going to have to work toward it. If that happens, great, but I think we have to be realistic in the fact that, as I said before, we’re replacing a world‑class driver, and we’re trying to figure out how we get to that next level. AJ said it himself; he wants to be somebody that’s a Chase contender and a championship contender, but before you can contend for a championship you have to be in the Chase. I think we have to set our goals realistically to make sure we’re within striking distance the first dozen races or so and then start to build on the various relationships that will occur at that point in time.”

The thought here is that both Allmendinger and Penske Racing have come through some difficult times and both will find, in each other, the stability they have been searching for.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, December 22 2011
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