Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side by Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
Today’s Question: Team Red Bull released AJ Allmendinger from his 2009 contract this week, rather than expand to three Sprint Cup teams with he, Brian Vickers and Scott Speed. Was it the right move to let AJ go after just two seasons?
Everything Was Going Right For AJ – It’s The Owner Who’s Wrong
Patience is a virtue, but it’s hard to find any virtuous car owners around the Sprint Cup circuit these days. With sponsors shelling out millions and expecting an immediate return on investment, win later has been replaced with the concept of win now… or else.
That’s what made Team Red Bull’s treatment of Allmendinger so compelling – because they seemed the exception to the rule. With the owner footing the bill through his multi-million dollar business, immediate success wasn’t needed at the Cup level, creating a mutual understanding that turning an open-wheel lifer into a stock car superstar was going to take some time. It was an old-school plan to make a new-school driver successful, taking him along for the ride as the team developed a long-term plan to be a force in the Sprint Cup Series.
And then, that plan suddenly stopped – in the middle of being right on schedule, no less. It’s a divorce that no one expected… and everyone’s left to wonder why.
To be fair, it’s the driver who’s the one that officially made this move on record, spurning management’s offer for a one-year deal to remain in control of the No. 84. He was reportedly looking for a longer commitment… but why shouldn’t he get one? After all, this driver’s done everything that was asked of him in Team Red Bull equipment. With virtually no stock car experience – just a handful of Truck Series starts under his belt – you’d expect a transition from Champ Car to Cup to be rough. And it was… in 2007, the ‘Dinger failed to qualify for more races than he made, never catching a sniff of the top 10 while posting 13 runs of 31st or worse. After failing to qualify for the first three races of 2008, things got so bad that Jay Frye replaced Allmendinger with Mike Skinner for six weeks just to give AJ a taste of what a veteran could do with the car.
Here’s the thing, though; Frye made that move with AJ’s future in mind. Convinced he’s a great driving talent – so much so he pleaded with owner Dietrich Mateschitz to keep the guy – Skinner’s presence was designed by Frye to let the “young gun” learn from the sidelines rather than be a precursor to shoving him out the door. And ever since Allmendinger’s retaken the reins of that car the end of April, he’s shown improvement like few others have on the Sprint Cup circuit. Not a single DNQ in 20 starts has come packaged with his first top 10, a handful of top 15s, and several more strong runs that left everyone raising their eyebrows, saying this guy has a future in the sport. Now solidly in the Top 35 in owner points, the team got there not because of Skinner’s veteran leadership, but because of Allmendinger’s performances the last five months behind the wheel.
If the sophomore only started the year this way, he’d probably be contending for a top-25 spot in Sprint Cup points. And considering that veteran Vickers struggled just as badly as he did last year – with four years more experience – where the No. 84 team is at now is about where you’d expect it to be. After all, let’s not forget this team is in only its second year of existence, in an environment where it’s almost impossible to break into the upper echelon these days. And considering AJ’s open-wheel background, one needs to only look at the rookie years of Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier to realize this was a plan for long-term growth.
But in the end, an owner we’ll call “Mr. Dietrich” (let’s not even try the last name I can’t pronounce) seems to be more intrigued by a little mistress he’s kept on the side for years. What he sees is a different solution in Speed, one he’s pulled out of Formula 1 after slumping there – only to throw him in a stock car and see what he could do. Speed has responded to the challenge, coddled with the development time AJ never had while scoring wins at the ARCA and Craftsman Truck Series level. He’s certainly capable of taking it to the next level… just as Dietrich’s capable of providing financial support for a third car for both his open-wheel protégés to succeed.
But for whatever reason, Dietrich doesn’t see the beauty of a 1-2-3 punch. There’s no reason he, AJ and Vickers can’t build on the success of 2008 together, nothing to indicate that anything was going in the wrong direction. Everyone was simply going with the flow and enjoying the fruits of their labor – and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the bus door opened and someone got thrown out.
So much for patience; I just wish that for AJ’s sake, if that’s how it was going to go, that Dietrich was never going to hire him in the first place. Because nothing out of the ordinary happened here – and if this wasn’t the plan all along, he just wasted 18 months of the poor guy’s career. – Tom Bowles
Team Red Bull has The Need for Speed
After little more than a season and a half together, Team Red Bull is replacing Allmendinger with Speed, leaving some to question whether or not this was the right move. After all, Allmendinger had shown remarkable progress in recent months, propelling the No. 84 machine out of the Land of Nod and into the Top 35 in the owner standings. The former Champ Car ace had begun to exhibit some consistency and seemed to get his feet under him as of late, gaining momentum and usually running within a position or two of his much more experienced teammate, Vickers. Is ditching Allmendinger for Speed the right move?
Absolutely – although, it should be known this is of no fault of Allmendinger or an indictment of his ability on the racetrack.
But the main reason for his sudden departure is the ascension of another former open-wheel driver who hails from California. It’s a budding star whose roots are grounded in Red Bull F1 history, and one who shares a relationship with the owner of the racecars and the stickers that go on them. This season has been Speed’s first full-time gig in fendered racecars, and he has made the most of his short time here – having come from the world of racing across the pond in Europe. He won his first Craftsman Truck Series race at Dover in only his sixth start, driving the team truck to Toyota top gun Johnny Benson for Bill Davis Racing, and he also currently leads the ARCA standings with four wins to his credit.
Not bad for a newcomer.
Team Red Bull is a bit of an enigma. They have what amounts to the most robust and visible presence in motorsports, sponsoring just about everything with wheels and wings (or as they say, “wiings”) across the globe. What they had to show for it was just about nothing until Sebastian Vettel won a rain-soaked Italian Grand Prix at Monza two weeks ago. Their two-car Sprint Cup operation is not nearly of the size and scope one would imagine it to be, with their presence splattered over anything that will accept dark blue paint or a bovine decal. Early on, it was considered that Speed would drive a third Red Bull entry behind No. 83 driver Vickers and AJ, but after a recent trip to Austria to meet with team – and sponsor–owner Dietrich Mateschitz – VP and General Manager Jay Frye got the emperor’s thumbs-down on retaining Allmendinger. Mateschitz has long been big on Speed and vowed to help him after his brief stint in F1 ended in a screaming and shoving match between he and principles Gerhard Berger and Franz Tost at the Nurburgring in 2007.
What it amounts to in the end is that Allmendinger got thrown into the fire and had to make the most of an impossible situation. He left a Champ Car team with whom he had won five races in 2006, making him about the only American next to Danica Patrick as the face of open-wheel racing in the United States. Instead, he joined a startup stock car team in the most competitive form of racing on the planet and had to learn both the old car and the Car of Tomorrow – assuming he was able to qualify for a race, since the Red Bull cars had no Top-35 owners’ provisional to rely on.
Allmendinger failed to qualify for 19 races in 2007, but only missed three this year. By contrast, teammate Vickers DNQ’ed 13 times in 2007. Allmendinger was pulled from the No. 84 car earlier in the year, and replaced with former Cup star and Truck Series champion Skinner to evaluate what was wrong with the team and the cars. After that brief hiatus, Allmendinger returned and had been running well enough, many thought, to keep his ride. In any other circumstance, that may have been enough, but the fact of the matter is Speed is the next big thing in racing, and the owner of the race team is also the one footing the bill.
Mark it down – Speed will soon be this generation’s Tim Richmond. Minus the mustache. – Vito Pugliese