During the recent race weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Frontstretch writer Jay Pennell was able to catch up with Richard Petty Motorsports driver AJ Allmendinger. An impressive run early in the Daytona 500 turned heads, but a spin through the grass ruined his day and the No. 43 team has stumbled since. With four finishes of 25th or worse, Allmendinger sits 26th in points, yet is optimistic the team has what it takes to rebound.
Jay W. Pennell, Frontstretch: You started the year off strong in Daytona, leading a lot of laps, then had your trouble there. Could you just talk about how your year has gone since then?
AJ Allmendinger: Like you said, Daytona, to a certain extent, was good. To lead the Daytona 500 having Best Buy on the car for the first time – ran strong in the [Gatorade] Duels – obviously that wasn’t where we wanted to finish (32nd). But that was pretty strong.
These racecars are brand new to us, so we went to Fontana and we weren’t great. Vegas, we struggled. That was disappointing, and that put us back [in the points] with our finish in Daytona. Atlanta, we kind of figured some things out. Bristol, we had an up and down day, got a decent finish out of it. Everybody is going to have bad finishes; unfortunately, we’ve had all ours in the beginning. We just have to take the things that are in our control – me at the racetrack, staying calm, staying out of trouble, the team making clean stops and just keep finishing strong every weekend. I think we’re going to keep getting better as the year goes on, and we’ve just got to keep being smart and try to get every point we can until then. I kind of look at it as after the Coke 600 is when you really look at the points and see if the Chase is a possibility; then, you start focusing on the Chase. Right now, it’s just race by race.
Pennell: Could you just talk about what happened at Daytona? You seemed to just lose it off of turn 2, slid through the grass and didn’t hit anything, but then you spent a lot of time in the garage.
Allmendinger: I’m not really sure what got the car wiggling, whether it was the pothole or Jeff [Gordon] was pretty close to my door at that point and he didn’t give me a lot of room. It was one of those things where it got loose and I thought it was going to be fine the whole time. Looking back at it, if I had known the end result, I would have used Jeff up. I thought it was going to be OK, and I didn’t want to take a chance at damaging the left side of the car, so I pulled hard to stay off of Jeff. Even when I spun out, I thought we were going to be fine, but it was pointed towards the wall so I had to lock the brakes up, got four tires flat, and couldn’t get the thing restarted. The disappointing thing was the officials didn’t give us a lot of time to figure out how to restart it; they just pulled me out of the car.
Pennell: It seems you guys are up there on the speed charts on practice sheets on Fridays and Saturdays, yet the results on Sunday are not there. Is it a matter of luck, tuning yourselves out, what do you think the issue is there?
Allmendinger: On Sundays, it’s tough. The track is always changing. In Vegas, it rained and washed the rubber off [the track]. It just comes with experience with these racecars. We need to understand these cars better to go out there and make an adjustment that we think’s going to be right, just take the racetracks and get notes on them. You know, Vegas is a race track that I’ve only raced twice at – including this year. Just getting better and learning these racecars is a big deal. To know we have a baseline setup to fall back to, and know with that baseline you should run 16th or worse and keep working from there. I think [crew chief] Mike Shiplett and I, we’re learning that with these cars, we’re getting a baseline, we know what kind of similar package we want to run, and then fine-tune from there. That’s something we need to keep doing and just focus on that.
Pennell: With teammates like Paul Menard (11th in points) and Kasey Kahne (20th in points), what can you learn from them? Are their driving styles too different from yours, or is there valuable information you can use on the No. 43 car that you can gain from their notes?
Allmendinger: Obviously, Kasey is the flagship of this team. We all lean on him. Paul has done an awesome job. The addition of Slugger [Labbe] over there on that team has made a huge deal. For us, that’s what’s been difficult. Paul is obviously the highest in points on our team, but we’ve run up there with him, if not better every race – at least half the races. Daytona, I thought we were probably the best car out there. Fontana and those we were very close. In Atlanta, we were in the top five all day. There’s a lot of good notes for us to work with, but we kind of shot ourselves in the foot three weeks in a row to begin with, otherwise we’d be right there in points. That’s what we kind of have to focus on.
I kind of judge off of that every year it takes a 16th-, 17th-place average to make the Chase and that’s what we focus on. We have to make our bad days a 16th- or 17th-place finish. That’s what makes a guy like Kasey or Paul and those guys so good right now is they can take a day that is not so good and salvage a 16th or 17th out of it. We’re doing that the last couple of weeks. We want every guy running well because that’s more notes to work with. So far, every team seems to be running better with the alliance with Roush Fenway Racing; those notes are there, too. The resources are there; we just need to utilize them better.
Pennell: I wanted to ask you about the upcoming Kings’ Cup event at Victory Lane Karting in Charlotte, N.C. I know you are a kart racer; are there any in-house bets or anything like that?
Allmendinger: It was a lot of fun last year. In the end result, it’s for a great cause for the Paralyzed Veterans of America. That’s something we get to be doing each week because of all the soldiers past, present, and future that fought for this country and to protect our freedoms. It’s a great cause, but in the end we go out there and we all fight hard and want to win it. We’re working with Best Buy to put together a strong team to go out there and win it. For me, it’s never about money, it’s about pride. You could have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have any pride on it then it means nothing. So you just go out there and you have the pride of everyone, that’s what matters.