When AJ Allmendinger was introduced as a Cup Series rookie two seasons ago, he was expected to be a work in progress – and he is. Now in his second year on the circuit, Allmendinger’s progress report has been filled with potential; but as we all know, that doesn’t always translate into performance. With a team that’s been outside the Top 35 in owner points since its inception, Allmendinger endured a horrific 2007, failing to qualify nineteen times en route to a 43rd-place finish in the final standings. This year, Allmendinger faced a worst case scenario: after failing to qualify for the season’s first three races, he was taken from the seat and replaced by Mike Skinner on a temporary basis.
But as of Talladega, Allmendinger was called back off the bench, and it’s so far, so good for the 26-year-old: he’s three for three in qualifying for races so far.
Frontstretch sat down with AJ during the test at Lowe’s Motor Speedway to discuss his sophomore Sprint Cup season, recent hiatus from the No. 84 Red Bull Racing car, and whether the open wheel merger would ever get him to switch back to the series he once was a rising star in. The five-time Champ Car winner shares his thoughts on all that and more – plus gives his Indy 500 prediction – in this Frontstretch exclusive.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: How is the test going?
AJ Allmendinger: Yesterday went really good. We’ve been working on trying to get the car to turn in the center of the corner. We did a qualifying run late last night, and that put us at the top of the speed charts. We still need to get better; but obviously, I was really pleased with yesterday.
Editor’s Note: Allmendinger clocked in with the second-fastest time during Monday evening’s session at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Are the tires Goodyear brought to Lowe’s an improvement over what you have seen in the past?
I think it’s good. Last year it took so long to get the tire going, and the first 10 laps on new tires you thought you were going to wreck. They’ve kind of solved that this year. We ran 55 laps on each set, doing 10 to 15 laps each run, and it wasn’t going that bad.
Toyota has come a long way this year – how is the car, and what do you think is still lacking?
We always need to get better, but it kind of goes along with Red Bull Racing. We’re getting better, Toyota’s getting better. Especially for us in the No. 84, and me getting back in the car. The last two weeks, we’ve run well – we’ve qualified great. We just need to get some luck on our side to get over that hump and get the good finishes. At Talladega, I was six inches from finishing 15th, and finished 30th. And at Richmond, that’s the best short-track car I’ve ever had; we had an easy top 15, then the brakes failed and we wrecked. But we’re getting better as a whole, and so is Toyota.
What did you and the team focus on learning during the time that Skinner drove the car?
I think it was two different things. The team focused on trying to see where they stood, where the car was, and Mike and his experience level helped get the car better. For me, I just focused on what Mike was doing, and his experience level – what made him as good as he is? More than anything, it just gave me a peace of mind as to where I stood as a racecar driver. It’s always one of those things where you want Skinner to go out there and run as well as possible, but if he goes out there and runs top five and you’ve been struggling to make the races, that’s kind of hard. Mike’s a great qualifier – he got the car in the show, but you know, it showed the team as a whole that we need to get the car better… and that just gave me peace of mind.
You and teammate Brian Vickers are young guys, even though Brian has been around a while. What kind of support do you give each other?
It’s kind of funny that he’s two years younger than me and this is like what, his fifth year in Cup? Brian has taught me a lot. He’s a great guy. He and the whole No. 83 guys are doing a great job this year. He’s taught me a lot, and hopefully I’ve given a little bit back to him; and as I get stronger and we get stronger as a team, we can give more and more back.
Let’s talk off the track. What do you like to do for fun?
I just kinda relax, play video games a lot at home. I bowl every now and then. I just try to not overstrain myself!
With everything happening on the open-wheel circuit, with the Champ Car-IndyCar merger and the Indianapolis 500 coming up, do you ever miss that type of racing?
Of course, I always miss it. Those cars were fun to drive. It’s cool to have the series back as one – that’s what we’ve been wanting for 15 years. I miss it just because of the people, and it’s what I grew up doing – but it’s not like I have second thoughts on making the decision. I’ve got a lot to accomplish here, and I know I can do the job; we’ve just got to get it turned around. It’s always the same thing – if you’re struggling, you always go, “Oh, man, I was winning back there,” but when we win here, it’s just going to be that much more of an accomplishment and it’s going to mean more.
Who’s going to win the Indy 500?
That’s a tough one. As a friend, I’d love to see Justin Wilson win it. I’d love that. Justin was a great teammate of mine. I don’t think they have the cars yet, though. I’m going to have to go with Scott Dixon.