With the weight off his shoulders just by making the Daytona 500, AJ Allmendinger came out and ran the race of his life in the 51st running of the prestigious event. The young Richard Petty Motorsports driver – who is set to run only the first eight races of the season, pending sponsorship – ran in the top 12 for the entire second half of the race, leaving Daytona with a career best finish of third.
No question, it was a career-defining moment for a guy left at the curb by Team Red Bull last September after a surge of strong performances. Sitting at the podium in the media center following the race, Allmendinger could have easily blasted those that have given up on him in the past; but the former open-wheel driver did just the opposite.
“I think you quickly learn in this sport that it doesn’t owe you anything. I mean, you got to earn everything that you get,” he said. “You can sit back and feel bad about yourself or whine about everything that’s going on, but there’s a lot of people in this world that are a lot less fortunate than I am right now – even everything I went through.”
After losing his Team Red Bull ride to rookie Scott Speed at the end of 2008 and flirting with taking the No. 19 RPM ride of Elliott Sadler full-time, Allmendinger instead was tasked with piloting a fourth RPM entry – meaning he’s not guaranteed a spot in the field in any of the first five races, unlike his three teammates.
But for a program put together in only the past month and a half, the camaraderie within the new organization appears surprisingly strong. That’s why after those teammates pushed him into the field during Thursday’s Duel 150 qualifying race, Allmendinger was content to return the favor on Sunday for Sadler and Reed Sorenson up front.
“I was hoping it was going to rain when Elliott was leading and Reed was second and I was fourth. That would have been a really great result for the team,” he said. “I was trying to push Reed and Elliott as much as I could. They are the ones that got me into the race. It was my turn to return the favor and try to get them the win.”
It’s been an up and down career for Allmendinger – who has dealt with naysayers ever since stepping into a Sprint Cup car – but some of the sport’s top drivers have begun taking notice of the young driver’s talent. Take Kevin Harvick, for example, who battled with the top go-or-go-home car in the final stages of the rain-shortened event.
“I think everybody forgets how many people have been run out of this sport from the open-wheel side that hadn’t had any success whatsoever,” Harvick explained. “He’s been pretty successful in a short amount of time.”
The former Champ Car World Series rookie of the year and race winner took some time to fully grasp the world of stock car racing – but with more experience has come more consistent finishes. Now, it seems only a matter of time before someone’s patience with the young driver will pay off.