Doug Turnbull · Monday September 27, 2010
The following sentence seems amazing because, when you think about it… it just does not happen all that often. A.J. Allmendinger, driver of the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, had the car to beat at Dover International Speedway in Sunday’s AAA 400. Well, at least for the first half. But first, Allmendinger turned heads with a Friday qualifying lap that placed the No. 43 on the outside pole next to Jimmie Johnson. It was the third straight start of sixth or better for the ‘Dinger, a continuing sign of improvement for a team building for 2011 and beyond. However, most midpack teams that qualify well slip back from the drop of the green flag, and rarely do they actually gain spots and pass former champs for the lead.
Not this time. That pattern came to a striking halt as for awhile there on Sunday, this race was shaping up to be A.J.’s day.
Johnson led the first 13 laps from the pole at Dover, but Allmendinger was not ready to fall back. He charged forward and took the lead from Four-Time on lap 14, staying in that position on and off for most of the rest of the race’s first half. Remaining the leader was no fluke. Allmendinger led 143 of the first 171 laps, opening up leads of several seconds over the stout racecars which made up the balance of the rest of the top 5. Unfortunately for The ‘Dinger, the bad luck that has plagued his race team struck the Insignia / Best Buy Ford on lap 172. Allmendinger slowed and made an unscheduled pit stop for a flat right rear tire, a problem which moved him outside the top 25 and off the lead lap.
The team’s only hope for Allmendinger to catch up to the lead pack and get back on pit sequence would be for everyone to make their regular pit stops under green and then for a caution to come out. It finally did, this time for debris from Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford shortly after Allmendinger’s mishap on Lap 189.
That meant fate was not completely sealed for the 28-year-old Californian. The ‘Dinger battled back, got on the lead lap, and gained over 15 positions during mostly green flag runs to salvage a 10th-place effort. It was the exclamation point on a day that showcased him as uncharacteristically fast, for a team that often has struggled to keep traction with their upper echelon counterparts. His 143 laps led were the most he has led in any season, much less a race, and added up to more in one day than all other drivers have accomplished wheeling Richard Petty’s flagship car since the start of 2002 combined. Clearly, his run on Sunday was the most surprising in the Sprint Cup Series since David Reutimann’s Chicagoland win and 52 laps led back in July. Allmendinger’s run also leaves the same, “Hey, Someone Else Is Actually Running Up Front!” good taste that Clint Bowyer’s dominant New Hampshire performance left last week. (Here’s hoping that things turn out better for RPM this week in post-race than they did for Richard Childress Racing last week).
In the grand scheme of things, what does A.J. Allmendinger’s laps led and 10th-place finish really mean? It truly is a sign that RPM’s racecars continue to turn corners, as they did earlier in the season. Not only did Allmendinger lead the second-most laps in the race (to Jimmie Johnson’s 191), but teammates Paul Menard’s No. 98 Ford placed 7th (again, without any fluke fuel mileage or late caution factors inflating his finish) and Elliott Sadler ran 17th in his No. 19 — eight spots better than his 25.1 average finish this season. Like Roush Fenway Racing, the RPM stable of Fords, which likely will be pared down from four to two next season, are closing the gap on the competitive advantage that Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Richard Childress Racing have on the rest of the Sprint Cup Series right now.
Another telling sign of improvement for Allmendinger and the rest of RPM’s remaining teams is the chemistry that is bottoming out surrounding the departing Kasey Kahne’s No. 9 Budweiser car. Kahne struggled miserably Sunday, marking the third time in four races that Kahne experienced extreme handling issues. Kahne finished 32nd at Atlanta Motor Speedway, 29th at Richmond, 14th last week at Loudon, New Hampshire, and 28th, four laps down Sunday at Dover. Kahne has been the star driver at Richard Petty Motorsports, but relegated to lame duck status for much of the 2010 season. While he has pieced together some good runs this year, the fire to contend does not seem to burn as brightly on the No. 9 pit box any longer. With so much uncertainty surrounding both Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis’ futures, one has to wonder if the flux is causing the duo to fumble down the stretch – especially since they are out of the Chase – but their organization’s success surrounding them shows neither one is necessary for RPM to stand on its own two feet.
Jimmie Johnson’s win Sunday, like it or not, was the statement that the No. 48 team wanted to send to the rest of the field that they are the ones to beat for the 2010 Sprint Cup Chase. But A.J. Allmendinger made a statement of his own on lap 14 Sunday. By passing the champ and then driving away from the field more than once, Allmendinger gave notice that he may be just a few small adjustments away from slinging a few rocks at the Goliaths that stand in between him and Sprint Cup stardom. Johnson may have firmly sat on the horseshoe at Dover, keeping Allmendinger from picking him off, but Sunday’s run was a total coup for a driver who had only led three other times, led only 10 laps before this season, and DNQ’d 19 times in 2007 and three times on 2008. Every driver needs a “Coming Out Party…”
Bienvenidos Senor Allmendinger!
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m. (or whenever the Georgia Bulldogs are not playing) and daily as a traffic reporter on AM-750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com and is co-track announcer at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, GA.
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