NASCAR’s Silly Season seems to start earlier every year, but I never remember it gearing up this quickly.
The announcement AJ Allmendinger will be temporarily replaced in the No. 84 is the second such driver change in three weeks in Sprint Cup – Jacques Villeneuve was ousted from the No. 27 mere hours after missing the Daytona 500. Add in the Bobby Labonte whispers throughout the garage that he’s going to RCR for 2009, and it’s been one above average month of February when it comes to shakeups behind the cockpit.
Make no mistake, though; Allmendinger’s exit from the No. 84 was definitely a bit of a shock. Considering the sophomore was the first car left out at all three races this season, it’s not like he was completely off the mark; in fact, the 93 owner points AJ accumulated leaves Team Red Bull just 119 out of a Top-35 spot, not an unattainable goal by any means. In fact, under the old qualifying rules from a few years back, Allmendinger would have made two of three races; he finished 13th in his Gatorade Duel and qualified 34th at Las Vegas (his team would still have been bitten by the California rainout last week).
But this is the new NASCAR, and the Top-35 rule bit Allmendinger at the worst possible time – for it seems this ouster may have as much to do with the No. 83’s success as with the No. 84’s failure at Team Red Bull. Right now, Brian Vickers is sitting pretty in 12th in the standings, all but assured of a “locked-in” spot when the series heads to Martinsville in a couple of weeks. Last year, it was hard to blame every misstep on Allmendinger’s inexperience, as Vickers was also failing to qualify; but with the performance between the two teams beginning to widen, the window of opportunity opened for General Manager Jay Frye to make a change.
Certainly, Mike Skinner is not the long-term answer here, but in the short-term he’ll get this team what they need – a good qualifier who’ll get the car into the show. Clocking in with the fifth-fastest time at Vegas in Bill Davis’s No. 27 Toyota, Skinner showed he could still get the job done at 51 – and with the way new teammate Vickers’s team has been running, don’t be surprised if he puts this car in position for a top 10 at one of the short tracks later on this month. Frye was noncommittal as to how long Skinner will stay in the car; but at this point, you’d have to think a few solid runs will buy him a six- to eight-week stint at the very least. On a side note, Skinner’s departure from BDR now gives Johnny Benson an opening to reestablish himself on the Cup scene; the 1996 Cup Rookie of the Year now gets the No. 27 Toyota exclusively to himself until Skinner’s tenure with Red Bull comes to an end.
So, what happens to Allmendinger? Frye was adamant this move was merely temporary, making it clear the team is not giving up on AJ as it plans to develop him in a lower series – which was probably what this team should have done when they chose to pick him off the CART circuit two years ago. But the more troubling sign for Allmendinger is the team’s sudden investment in fellow open wheeler and former rival Scott Speed. Speed is scheduled to run two Truck Series races with the No. 46 team, and solid performances there could turn that into a full-time development deal. Curiously, Red Bull continues to funnel its resources in areas they never did for the driver they just “replaced;” and with Allmendinger being sent back into the same series, there’s a chance the two are about to begin a “knockout” competition to take over the No. 84 car full-time for 2009. In the past, Red Bull has said they’d like to keep both on the roster, but they appear hardly ready to expand to a three-car team – common sense tells you they can’t absorb another nightmare expansion like they had in 2007. If they were, Allmendinger would be busy taking his knocks in Cup this weekend at Atlanta.
The bottom line in all this mess is that the Cup Series has lost an immense racing talent, albeit temporarily. There were a reason multi-car Cup operations were trying to wrestle Allmendinger away despite 19 DNQs over the course of 2007; by the end of the year, he was picking up the pace while showcasing the skill he propelled to stardom over in CART. At 26, there’s a tremendous upside to this investment, and with some proper seasoning in either Nationwide or Trucks, Allmendinger will have a second chance at Cup.
At this point, the only question is with who. My money’s still with Team Red Bull; but despite the way both parties reassured us Monday, that answer is not 100% set in stone.