AJ Allmendinger spent most of his offseason much like several drivers across NASCAR’s national series – unsure of where he would be in 2009. He didn’t know which team in the Richard Petty Motorsports stable he would show up to Daytona with. He didn’t know whether or not he would have a guaranteed spot in the field of 43 when the Great American Race rolled around, or if he would even have a full-time ride.
What could be worse for the 27-year-old?
He still doesn’t know.
The former Champ Car World Series race winner and Rookie of the Year has had his share of ups and downs since jumping into the world of stock car racing. He missed 20 races in his rookie campaign in 2007, then was replaced by Mike Skinner early in 2008 after failing to qualify for three in a row. But when Allmendinger returned to the No. 84 in late April, he began to show signs of improvement. He won the Sprint Showdown at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May, then put together four consecutive top 20s in July and August with new crew chief Jimmy Elledge.
But just as Allmendinger seemed to “get it,” Team Red Bull felt it necessary to move forward with 2009 Rookie of the Year candidate Scott Speed instead – one week after Allmendinger earned his career-best finish of ninth at Kansas.
It’s a move the open-wheel convert doesn’t quite understand.
“I look at certain people and I say, man, how do they always land in the right spot all the time, or how do they get lucky?” he said. “But no matter, what you can’t change anything. You can only control your own destiny, and that’s all I can do. I can get in a racecar, drive the wheels off of it, have fun doing it and just leave everything on the racetrack. If I’m able to do that, then I won’t have any regrets whether good or bad things happen.”
So, Allmendinger pressed on. After a one-race stint with Michael Waltrip Racing in October, Allmendinger teamed up with Gillett Evernham Motorsports (now Richard Petty Motorsports) and immediately showed his potential, outperforming teammates Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler in the second half of the Chase with four top 20s in the final five races.
Then came the offseason nobody expected.
Allmendinger was picked to replace Sadler in the No. 19 car, but Sadler was set to file suit for breach of contract and returned to the No. 19. Then, GEM merged with Petty Enterprises to form RPM and Allmendinger was put in team’s fourth car, the No. 44 (formerly the No. 10). Using the No. 10’s owner points he expected to be considered in the Top 35 in owner points, assuring him a spot in the first five races of 2009.
But of course it couldn’t be that easy.
A recent influx of “technical alliances” and mergers have shuffled teams ahead of the No. 44 in the owner standings and now Allmendinger must qualify his way into the first five races, including the season opening Daytona 500. Not only that, but he is only slated to run the first eight races pending sponsorship.
You would think Allmendinger would have thrown in the towel by now, but that’s not his style. He remains optimistic and while next week could ultimately determine his 2009 fate, tonight’s Budweiser Shootout is all about learning.
“You can’t ever get me more pumped up than I always am to get in a racecar. It’s what I love to do and it’s what I want to do, so to be in the Shootout is a pretty cool thing,” he says. “I’m just going to use the Shootout as practice. Ultimately I want to go there and win, but I don’t have a lot of restrictor-plate experience. I just want to get out there and get the flow going.”
“The biggest factor is that I got five races under my belt last year so I learned a lot of the guys, a lot of the team.”
Among all the changes, Allmendinger returns crew chief Sammy Johns. The two tested during the offseason at Rockingham and in a tire test at Phoenix and hope to build upon the success they found in the final five races of 2008.
Of course, nobody is as optimistic as Allmendinger.
“I really enjoy being here and I love this racing. I know I have the ability and talent to go out there and run up front, win races, contend for championships and win championships,” he says. “I know this team has all the stuff inside the shop they need to be a team that can contend every week.”
“I’m happy being here. I’m just going to have to fight to death to stay here.”