NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: The Jury is Still Out on Scott Speed, AJ Allmendinger Swap

When in the fall of last season it was announced by Red Bull Racing that it had relieved AJ Allmendinger of his duties behind the wheel of the Red Bull No. 84, the news was met with a considerable amount of skepticism within the NASCAR community. It made little sense to many to replace Allmendinger, especially after a drastic improvement in performance during his sophomore campaign with not just NASCAR, but stock cars as well. The news was met with even more raised eyebrows when it was clear that Allmendinger’s replacement for 2009 was a fellow open-wheel driver with little stock car experience in his own right… Scott Speed.

To be fair, Allmendinger’s introduction to stock car racing in ’07 had been nothing short of a disaster. The young Champ Car refugee failed to qualify for more than half the Sprint Cup races he attempted – only making the race-day field 17 times in his 36 qualifying attempts. However, considering the then 25-year-old California native’s lack of experience and the team’s start-up status with a struggling, new manufacturer (Toyota) to the Sprint Cup Series – the results were not at all surprising and in fact somewhat predictable.

When Allmendinger failed to qualify for the first three events in 2008, Red Bull hired veteran Mike Skinner to take Allmendinger’s seat temporarily to assist in evaluating the No. 84 team and racecars – as well as mentor the young driver in the process. After five races, Skinner stepped aside as planned and watched as Allmendinger steadily improved – a noticeable progression that continued, absent any further DNQs, and culminated in a career-best ninth-place finish at Kansas in the 29th event of the 36-race Sprint Cup season. However, Red Bull team management announced following the impressive top-10 finish that Allmendinger was free to pursue other driving opportunities, with the driver’s seat in the No. 84 to be shared by Skinner and Speed for the remainder of the season. Conventional wisdom put Speed, who had been gaining experience in NASCAR’s Truck Series, behind the wheel full-time in 2009… and that’s exactly what happened.

Yet, Allmendinger’s improvement and the potential he had begun to display did not go unnoticed by other team owners and AJ, after sitting out one race, filled in for Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 00 at Charlotte before moving on to Gillett Evernham Motorsports for what was supposed to be a temporary stay. In the final five races of the year, though, Allmendinger impressed owners, fans and competitors with four top-16 finishes in the No. 10 Dodge – a car that had been a back-runner for most of the season.

After that, GEM became Richard Petty Motorsports and Allmendinger finally found a home. Almost as if to prove to all that he belonged in big-league stock car racing, Allmendinger brought his No. 44 RPM Dodge home third in the season-opening Daytona 500 in the run which inevitably led to a long-term contract with RPM. Daytona has been the highlight of the still young 2009 season for Allmendinger, with a ninth-place finish at Martinsville as his only other top-10 finish in what can be described as second-tier equipment. Cooling off a bit, he now sits 26th in driver championship points – but no one is any longer questioning his abilities to compete on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Speed, on the other hand, is not enjoying the success that the fellow he replaced has had so far in 2009. Twice in the first 11 races, Speed has failed to qualify the now-No. 82, resulting in owner Dietrich Mateschitz being further outside of the Top 35 in the owner points standings and requiring Speed and his team to qualify on speed into the starting field. That’s led to a difficult learning curve for the rookie; in fact, Speed’s only top-20 effort during races was a fifth place at Talladega Superspeedway three races ago.

So, on the surface, it would appear that Team Red Bull made a bad choice in dumping the ever-improving Allmendinger for another inexperienced and untested upstart. The equipment certainly has improved since Allmendinger’s inaugural season of 2007, as evidenced by the improvement of the second team in the Red Bull stable. Brian Vickers, driver of the No. 83 Red Bull Dodge, began to show signs of competitiveness in the first half of 2008 and has continued that improvement this year – now situated 17th in driver points with one top five, four top 10s and two poles thus far in ’09. There is little argument that Red Bull Racing, as well as Toyota, has come a long way in what is now their third season in Sprint Cup racing; but to date, Speed is not keeping up.

Allmendinger, if life was fair, should have never been let go by Red Bull. However, life isn’t fair and Red Bull had their reasons for looking at Speed to eventually take the organization to the top. The former Formula 1 competitor by mid-2008 seemed a cinch to take the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series by storm, a sure bet to be a big hit both on and off the track.

Buoyed by what appeared to be an uncanny ability to adapt to the heavier cars, it appeared that Speed would not require a long apprenticeship in lower divisions getting the feel of racecars with fenders. In his first attempt at stock car racing, Speed qualified seventh and finished seventh at Talladega in the ARCA Re/Max 250 in October of 2007. With Red Bull backing, Speed ran ARCA’s full 21-race schedule last season, recording four wins, 10 top fives, 17 top 10s and three poles – finishing fifth in the driver points standings.

Some may dismiss Speed’s impressive rookie ARCA campaign in consideration of the level of competition; however, Red Bull also opened their purse strings even more, funding another 16 races in the rough and tumble NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last season in their quest to give the driver experience Allmendinger never had. And nothing that Speed accomplished in the Truck Series would have dissuaded the Red Bull team from believing that they had a “natural” in their stable. In his sixth Truck start, Speed won at Dover, and in his 16 outings, he recorded three other top fives, nine top 10s and a pole – giving plenty of reasons for the team to “fast track” him to the majors.

In Speed, Red Bull had a phenomenal 25-year-old driver on their hands that had demonstrated that he adapted quickly. Speed had history with Red Bull. Speed was ultra-cool. And if they decided to move him up, Red Bull knew he’d have a teammate in Vickers who had both the experience to mentor him while posting acceptable finishes. Meanwhile, Allmendinger had struggled. The decision to dump him wasn’t altogether easy… but business is business.

There is little doubt the business of selling energy drinks entered into the decision to hasten Speed’s ascent to the Sprint Cup Series, too. Should Speed develop into a Sprint Cup winner, his value to Red Bull as an advertising tool will be immeasurable. He’s cool, hip, and in touch with the now culture. With success will come greater exposure and Red Bull is banking on Speed’s individualistic, march-to-the-beat-of-his-own-drummer, laid-back personality to strike just the right cord with fans that only need to get to know him. A “him,” of course, which will be properly outfitted in Red Bull emblazoned clothing for all the fans to see…

A competitive Speed would not only be good for Red Bull, but would undoubtedly be a shot in the arm for NASCAR, as well. Speed is different. His hair color depends on his mood. He may show up in sunglasses that even Elton John would describe as “tacky.” Other times, he dresses as if he was auditioning for a part as a grown-up Opie Taylor. The guy is entertaining and few, if and when they get to know him, will be without an opinion of him… one way or another.

So, while it appears they may have made a mistake in the stats column, it appears the jury is still out on Red Bull’s decision in favor of Speed over Allmendinger. For AJ, things seem to have worked out for the best. He was given a second life by RPM, and as of now he is making the best of it. And while Scott Speed has not yet fulfilled the faith that Red Bull has shown in him… it is still early. Heck, at most tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit he doesn’t yet know where the bathrooms are located – let alone victory circle.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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