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2008 Driver Review: AJ Allmendinger

2008 Rides: No. 84 Team Red Bull Toyota (29 races); No. 00 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota (Lowe’s – October); No. 10 Gillett Evernham Motorsports Dodge (five races)
2008 Primary Sponsors: Red Bull (Red Bull); Champion Mortgage (MWR); Valvoline, Sears, McDonald’s, Tow Truck in a Box, Country Crock Spread (GEM)
2008 Owners: Dietrich Mateschitz (No. 84), Michael Waltrip (No. 00), George Gillett (No. 10)
2008 Crew Chiefs: Ricky Viers (Feb. – July), Jimmy Elledge (July – Oct.) (Team Red Bull), Peter Sospenzo (MWR), Mike Shiplett (GEM)

Stats: 32 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 2 top 10s, 0 poles, 36th in points
Best Finish: Ninth – Kansas.

High Point: In a roller-coaster season for AJ Allmendinger, one could make an argument for several different highs. There was the 10th-place finish at the Brickyard in July – but that race will be forever remembered as the Goodyear tire debacle that no one is really proud of or wants to remember. Then, there was his career-best finish of ninth at Kansas; but that was bittersweet, as it was his final race for TRB after being released in favor of Scott Speed. So, I’m gonna say the ‘Dinger’s high point was the opportunity to drive for GEM to close out the 2008 season. In the final five races driving the No. 10 Dodge, AJ had four top-20 finishes – and it would have been a perfect five for five had it not been for a pit-road penalty with less than 15 laps to go at Texas. Driving for a team that had just one top 16 to its credit until Allmendinger’s arrival, that strong finish may have well led to a ride for him in 2009.

Low Point: Again, with such an up-and-down year for the ‘Dinger, you could make an argument for several low points. Missing not only the Daytona 500 but also the following two races before being pulled for Mike Skinner could be considered one. But Allmendinger’s ultimate release from the No. 84 car – a scenario that dragged out for months until finally coming to a head at Kansas – would be his low point. After all, it doesn’t get much lower than losing your job, does it? Allmendinger had spent his entire Cup career with TRB and wanted a multi-year contract offer to stay a part of the organization. Instead, Austrian owner Dietrich Mateschitz would only offer a one-year deal, so both parties ultimately chose divorce instead.

Summary: Inconsistency marred the ‘Dinger’s second year in Sprint Cup early on in 2008. After beginning the year with three straight DNQs, he was pulled for Skinner for a five-race stint, and continued to struggle even after a return to the driver’s seat. Qualifying for the first time at Talladega in April, he spent the next eight weeks collecting three top-20 finishes – to go along with four runs of 30th or worse.

But after finishing 42nd and 43rd at back-to-back races in New Hampshire and Daytona, the arrival of new crew chief Jimmy Elledge created a summer spark in July. Starting with a 13th in Chicagoland, Allmendinger ripped off four straight top-20 finishes and led his car back towards a “locked-in” qualifying spot inside the Top 35 – even after his future with the team appeared in doubt. While stumbling a bit in early September, the ‘Dinger closed with a 16th at Dover and a ninth at Kansas before parting ways with the No. 84 in the midst of that sudden improvement.

After a one-race stint with Michael Waltrip Racing ended in a wreck, Allmendinger continued to step things up a notch after landing with GEM. During the second half of the Chase, he had a better average finish (16.1) then teammates Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne, and did it while forced to qualify on speed with his No. 10 Dodge each weekend.

So, it was a season of mixed results for the sophomore. What Allmendinger did show was that he was capable of running in the top 20 – but what he didn’t show was he could do it week in and week out all season long. The California native still failed to qualify for the first three events and finished 34th or worse nine times. Allmendinger did improve from 2007; but as bad as 2007 was, it didn’t take much of an effort to be an improvement.

2009 Outlook: As of this writing, there are no set in stone plans for the ‘Dinger in 2009. However, if the Petty/GEM merger goes through, there may be an opening for him at the No. 10 team after all. In one proposed scenario, Bobby Labonte would take over the No. 41 car for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Reed Sorenson would get the No. 43 car once owned by Petty and Allmendinger would be kept in the No. 10 Dodge for a full season of competition.

IF that happens – and it’s a big if – I’m willing to go out on a limb. Based on how he clicked with this team at the end of 2008, Allmendinger’s in a position where he could win multiple races in 2009. Not only that, I think he’ll make the Chase. The open-wheel convert proved at the end of the season that he’s capable of taking the next step – and with another year under his belt and a little more patience and maturity, Allmendinger is poised to take off in 2009.

2007 Frontstretch Grade: D+
2008 Grade: C+

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