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A.J. Allmendinger Enjoys Riding With The King

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 28 2009
A.J. Allmendinger is glad to be a loyal subject of The King. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

A.J. Allmendinger is glad to be a loyal subject of The King. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Fort Worth, Texas – A.J. Allmendinger didn’t give Richard Petty Motorsports its historic first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. Kasey Kahne delivered that feel-good moment to King Richard and partners-via-merger George N. Gillett Jr. and Ray Evernham at Infineon Raceway last month.

But as a driver who knows he easily could be trolling the garage area as an unemployment statistic, Allmendinger is all about making a return on investment.

“It’d be awesome (to win) for the King,” Allmendinger said during a visit to Texas Motor Speedway for its recent mid-summer FanFest III promotion. “He’s been one of my biggest supporters to make this fourth car happen.”

Allmendinger is settling in as driver of the No. 44 Hunt Brothers Pizza Dodge Charger, an 11th-hour addition to the stable born of the January merger between Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises, Inc.  The Dodges driven by Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson also are housed in the Statesville, N.C., facility originally set-up by Evernham as home to 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott.

Gillett Evernham drivers compiled 15 Cup victories between 2000, when Evernham bowed as front-man for Dodge’s ballyhooed return to NASCAR’s premier series, and 2008. Petty Enterprises – which like NASCAR traces its roots to the sands of Daytona Beach – was founded in 1949 by family patriarch Lee Petty. Forty-six different drivers, including four generations of the Petty family, helped PEI accumulate 268 victories and 10 driver’s championships largely during a period when NASCAR was viewed as a regional curiosity.

Allmendinger’s Cup career was launched in 2007 via a 17-race schedule in the No. 84 Toyota Camry fielded by Red Bull Team Racing and globe-trotting team-owner Dietrich Mateschitz . Despite an initial buzz, the partnership was short-lived, as Allmendinger joined GEM as driver of the No. 10 Dodge for the final five races of the 2008 season.

“There’s no secret this fourth car – and it’s not just the King, it’s the Gillett family, too – between George and Foster (Gillett) and the King, they started this fourth car specifically for me,” Allmendinger said. “It wasn’t like, ‘We got a ton of money lying around…’ It’s hurt the company overall. I think it’s hurt the other three cars a bit, having more resources for a fourth car. But they’ve looked at it and told me they believe in me that I can be a part of this race team long-term and help make the race team better overall. And the best way to repay that is to go out there and win for them.”

Paired with veteran crew chief Sammy Johns,  Allmendinger’s best finish for RPM has been a third-place in the 2009 season-opening Daytona 500. Sunday, Allmedinger started 33rd and finished 20th in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the ultimate career destination for any domestic open-wheel racer with the initials A.J.

For the record, Greg and Karen Allmendinger named their son Anthony James Allmendinger after open-wheel icon Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr.

“Well, basically, my dad told my mom before I was born, if I was a boy he didn’t care what the name stood for, but the initials had to be A.J.,” said Allmendinger, 27, whose hometown is Los Gatos, Calif. “Mom came up with Anthony James. So I was named after A.J. Foyt. That was my dad’s racing hero growing up, from Day One. Dad raced local stuff, Micro Midgets and things called Odysseys. Anything he could get his hands on and race, he would. I think he started racing in his late teens and as he puts it to me…he lives through me. He never had the chance to do it (professionally). His family couldn’t support it so he was on his own and was always at a racetrack. I was born and raised at a racetrack and my mom, she got into it. She had to learn to love it.

“I mean, I enjoy other sports. I enjoy playing them and watching them, but since Day One it was at a racetrack either watching my dad or watching the World of Outlaws. I love Sprint Car racing. That’s all I ever knew.”

The Cup learning curve admittedly continues to run steep for Allmendinger, wunderkind of the 2006 Champ Car World Series with five wins, one pole and two podiums for Forsythe Racing.

“You know, I thought at times we’ve been really close (to a Cup win),” Allmendinger said. “There’s been other times we’ve been so far off, we didn’t deserve to even be out there. But this team is getting better.

“Foster Gillett has been able to come from the Montreal Canadiens for the day-to-day operation. He did that late in May and I think it turned the team around right away. There’s a lot of stuff he’s had to sort through, and over the next couple of months, I think you’re going to see a lot of that start to come out…all the good things he’s been doing. We got all the people in place with Richard being there as the face of the team and a guy like Robbie Loomis running the competition side of it.

“So it’d be cool (to win for RPM). It’d be a great way to pay ‘em back. And I plan on doing that. I’m not sure when or where, but I plan on doing that eventually.”

Unlike some of his high-profile peers in the Cup garage, Allmendinger has not pinned all of his struggles on the idiosyncracies of NASCAR’s Car of Today. “I like ‘em,” said Allmendinger, whose rapid rise through the open-wheel ranks began in 2002. “Yeah, they (NASCAR) need to keep updating the COT and working on them in general, to make the side-by-side racing better. But drivers talk about how tough they are to drive. We get paid a lot of money. They should be tough to drive. You should be worn out at the end of a race, trying to hang onto the thing and drive it.

“To me, in the old (Cup) cars – and I didn’t get to drive them much – but you’d see the guys leading the races, they’d drive by you and it didn’t look like they were working hard at all. Nice and easy. With these, you’re battling. The leader’s working just as hard as you are. You’re at the top echelon of racing and they should be hard to drive. And I hate when people say they’re too hard, because there’s no such thing as too hard. We get paid to go out there and put on a show.”

Allmendinger acknowledged that both he and crew chief Johns still are adjusting to Dodge’s version of the one-size-fits-all COT.

“Sammy wasn’t a crew chief, basically, until the last race of last year and beginning of this year,” Allmendinger said. “Sammy is a great guy. He’s definitely passionate about it and is a great company guy. So as we’ve gotten time to work together and as he’s learned what these race cars need and what we need, it’s gotten better. He and my engineer, Mike Wolf, they’re a good group. Everybody on the 44 team, just because the deal came together so late, the guys that are on the team volunteered to do this because they were in-shop guys. It’s been tough…but we keep digging.”

Allmendinger began building his racing resume with a pair of International Karting Federation Grand National championships. In 2000, his performance in the Champ Car Stars of Tomorrow program earned a Champ Car test with Team Rahal. Allmendinger won the Barber Champ Car Karting Scholarship to participate in the 2001 Formula Dodge National Championship Series. He finished as vice-champion for the season and moved to the 2002 Barber Dodge Pro Series, where he claimed six wins, rookie of the year honors and the championship.

More success followed in the Toyota Atlantic Series in 2003, when he logged eight poles and eight victories en route to the championship. Allmendinger, then 21, set the series record for most wins in a single season by a rookie. And he became the second-youngest driver, trailing only Michael Andretti, to win the championship.

Allmendinger’s graduation into Champ Car in ‘04 produced five top-five finishes, including two podiums, and rookie of the year honors. His 2005 Champ Car season was marked by six top-fives, including four podiums. After switching to Forsythe Racing in mid-year 2006, Allmendinger became a Victory Lane regular with those five wins en route to a runner-up position in the series championship.

In October 2006, Allmendinger announced a three-race stint in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck (now Camping World) Series. That led to an invitation to join Team Red Bull’s Sprint Cup lineup in 2007 in the No. 84. Allmendinger said he truly “agonized” over the switch on several levels.

“I love Champ Car for what it was all about,” Allmendinger said. “The cars were awesome. The cities we raced in were great. But no second thoughts.

“I think people thought I was one of those guys that…’Oh, NASCAR has the money…that’s where I’m going.’ You know, I don’t do it for the money. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you – money makes everything a lot nicer. But I do it for the fun and the thing that was the toughest was that I didn’t think Champ Car was going to be around much longer. Obviously, it wasn’t. It’s one thing to agonize over the decision of, ‘Man, is this team going to be around? Or, is there a better team to go to?’ But it’s even tougher to agonize over, ‘Is this series going to be here anymore?’

“I had to make the choice that I didn’t know if I’d have another chance to get my foot in the door in NASCAR. That was my chance. Red Bull was giving me the opportunity and I had to take it. I think in the long run it was a better decision because Champ Car did fold. You look at my teammate, Paul Tracy. He doesn’t really race (full-time) anymore. You take most of those guys out of Champ Car, most of them don’t have rides anymore.

“Ultimately it was the right decision. I knew I was going to take a lot of heat from Champ Car media and the fans. But I hoped in the long run I could make it work and show that it was the right decision.”

Allmendinger’s 20th-place run at Indy kept him 27th on the critical top-35 owner’s points list that assures a starting spot in the weekly 43-car field. Interestingly, Allmendinger is  two spots ahead of Sam Hornish Jr., the three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indy 500 winner who switched to the Cup Series in 2007. Through 20 starts this season, neither Hornish nor Allmendinger has a pole or a win. Hornish, driver of the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge, is without a top-five but has four top-10s – and three DNFs. Allmendinger has his one top-five (at Daytona), three top-10s and zero DNFs. Hornish has logged the only five bonus points for leading a lap between the two.

When compared to Sudden Sam, Allmendinger agreed he’s generally been overshadowed.

“Sam was fortunate enough to come into a different situation – come into a team that was fairly established already and he had a relationship, obviously, with Roger Penske,” Allmendinger said. “Roger made that decision for him to come over here and support him right away. I jumped into a situation that was a lot tougher, with Red Bull being a new team, and a brand new manufacturer, the team struggled a lot more than I think even they expected.

“I think the toughest thing for me was when I made the decision to do this, and come into NASCAR, they (Team Red Bull) said they were going to put me into every Busch (now Nationwide) race and half the Truck races to get me ready. That was ultimately the reason why I made the decision. I thought…OK, even if the Cup team struggles, which we know it’s going to struggle, if I’m on a good Busch team at that point or a good Truck team, I can still go out there and show what I can do. And I can learn. And I can maybe potentially have chances to win races in that series and show people I have talent. And we just need to take time in the Cup car.

“Well, stuff doesn’t happen and I’m not running a lot of the stuff and I’m missing Cup races and it was tough. Even last year we got on a roll at Red Bull and I felt good about it. And that was another problem. I was working with a rookie crew chief (Rick Viers)…and you can’t put a rookie crew chief with a rookie driver. It’s just not going to happen.

“Now, as we go on, we’re just trying to survive. We started this deal and we were only going to do five races, the first five. In the offseason I was possibly going to be in the No. 19 and it didn’t work out. It seems like there’s always been a lot of stuff around me that has led me to survive. We need to get finishes.

“But I’m OK whether people want to talk about me, or I’m ‘flying under the radar.’ I have my own goals set and that’s where we need to get to.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 28 2009
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Dennis says:

    Excellent article! I think a lot of us felt that A.J. got a raw deal from Red Bull. I have to admit that I root for him to beat Scott Speed every week. Not that Scott is to blame for anything. I’m just not pro-Bull anymore.