It’s been a rough week for AJ Allmendinger, under fire after a heated conversation with Richard Petty produced an awful ending for the second straight race at Daytona. In both those events, his No. 43 went from potential winner to spinner in a heartbeat, leaving the talented 28-year-old wondering what might have been during a season that’s been marked by the phrase, “Close, but no cigar.” Add in the ultimate no no – a fight with The King – and the off week can’t come soon enough for a guy who saw his longshot Chase chances explode faster than those July 4th fireworks in your hometown.
Still, this former Champ Car star has plenty to be proud of heading into the season’s second half. Entering Daytona, he trailed Kasey Kahne by one point for tops in the Richard Petty Motorsports stable, finishing races and gaining valuable experience in just his fourth full year on the circuit. Still winless but still employed – unlike many of his other open-wheel brethren who made the stock car switch – is he comfortable with the way this career has panned out? AJ answers that and plenty more in a revealing conversation with our Phil Allaway, held just hours before his Daytona weekend suddenly spiraled out of control.
Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: First off, I want to get some thoughts about last week’s race up in Loudon. You started 28th, ran really well, and finished 10th.
AJ Allmendinger: Overall, it was really good. We ran top six, top seven all day. We were up to fourth before that yellow happened with Juan [Pablo Montoya] and Reed [Sorenson]. Generally, that’s been one of our worst tracks, so to run that well, 10th place, I felt like that’s actually a disappointment when it came to the end result for how we ran. It shows that we’re improving when we can complain about a 10th-place finish and know that we should have been a little bit better.
Overall, I think we’re getting better as a race team, and that’s what I’m really excited about.
Allaway: Was there something the team hit during Saturday practice at Loudon that allowed you to run so well?
Allmendinger: When you’ve got fast teammates, it always helps. Kasey was really fast from the start of Friday practice. We took some notes off of him and started like that on Saturday. Then, we went off on our direction from there.
Allaway: Up to this point in the season, you’re 21st in points with three top 10s (including last week) and a pole in Phoenix. Based on the goals you set for yourself at the beginning of the year, could this be considered a success? Or, do you wish you could have improved more in certain areas?
Allmendinger: For me, we’re working towards success. We have the potential there. At the beginning of the season, we didn’t start off well. We were fast here in Daytona and we wrecked, then in the next two races we struggled really bad. Then, we finally got on track.
The two races that hurt us big time were Martinsville, where we wrecked early in the race and cost us a good finish because we were running well. The other was Darlington, where the brake rotor failed and we crashed [with Jimmie Johnson]. Those were two finishes that easily could have been 100 points more, if not more than that.
We’re 21st (Editor’s Note: He’s now 22nd after Saturday’s Daytona wreck), but the points are so close right now that if we keep putting the results [up] that we’ve been getting the last six or seven weeks, we can easily be inside the top 15 and on the edge of possibly making the Chase. This is the ultimate goal, but if we were to end the season now, I’d look at it as an average season. [But with] the potential that we have if we keep doing the same things, it could be a really big success.
Allaway: Expounding on that, what kind of goals do you think the No. 43 team can achieve in the second half of the season?
Allmendinger: The Chase is the ultimate goal, but I look at that as a longshot. If we don’t make the Chase, that doesn’t mean that this has been a disappointing season. I set the goals at the beginning of the year to be in the top 15 or 16 in points, thinking that could potentially be a good season – especially being with Ford for the first year, and being with the No. 43 group and working together for the first time. As long as we keep getting those top-10 finishes, I feel that we’re on the cusp of having the ability to go out there and win a race.
Right now, I think we need to get a little bit better before we can win one, although if we did win one, it wouldn’t surprise me. But, if we can keep getting better as the year goes on and keep getting more top 10s, maybe some top fives, and potentially put ourselves in position to steal a win, that would be a huge success. We just got to keep getting better. We’re at the point where we show up every weekend about a top 15 team, maybe better. Our goal is to keep improving on that. We’ve had six top-15 finishes in the last six weeks, and that’s all we have to keep doing to get better.
Allaway: Consistency is the key in Sprint Cup, even with the Chase. Your crew chief is Mike Shiplett, who you have been working with off and on since you came to the team at the end of 2008. How’s the communication between you two?
Allmendinger: I really like Mike. He’s determined. He’s a hard worker, and all he seems to care about is race cars.
Our communication works well. I think we’re learning together. He’s learning what I like in a racecar, I’m learning what he needs to hear, and that’s going to dictate the success that you can have there and build off of it. If you look at the top teams out there — the Chad Knauses and Jimmie Johnsons, Jeff Gordon and Steve Letartes — those types of guys. Those are guys who have worked together, crew chief-driver wise for a few years.
I think that Mike and I are building a great relationship. There are times that we can get lost together, but there are also times that we can get it back together. What I’m excited about right now is that we can have a weekend where it doesn’t start off that well. At the beginning of this year, and even at times last year when we worked together, it seemed like that would kill us for the rest of the weekend. Now, we can get off-track, get back going, and pull out a good finish during the weekend. I just like how determined he is, since that’s how I am in the racecar. I go out [on the track] and all I care about is winning. He’s the same way, so it’s working well.
Allaway: The description you gave me of Shiplett reminds me of a section of Mark Bechtel’s book He Crashed Me, So I Crashed Him Back about the 1979 Winston Cup season. There’s a description in there of Glen Wood as a serious fan of the long hauls to Riverside just so he could sit there and think about the car for three days.
Allmendinger: Yeah, that’s the way Mike is. He’s always got questions, and he doesn’t settle for an answer he doesn’t like. Even at the shop, he keeps on the guys, the engineering department. He knows what he wants, and we’re building a good relationship like that.
I look at it as there’s no reason that every month, we shouldn’t be getting better together. That’s what excites me because we have the potential to have a great season, and there’s nothing that I see around the race team and between Mike and I and the guys that says we shouldn’t be getting better as the year goes on.
Allaway: We’re in Daytona. This is going to be the last race on the current surface, which is almost 32 years old. Have any thoughts about the old surface going out and the new surface coming in?
Allmendinger: I’m disappointed to see the old surface go. Obviously, it is needed with what happened with the 500 and the pothole, but it’s a fun race because it’s a superspeedway where handling comes into importance.
We were so fast at the 500 because our car handled good, not because we had great speed down the straightaway. Our car was really handling through the center of the corners. That was something that this racetrack lends itself to. You can’t just be wide open the whole time. You get your car handling the best, and you start off two- or three-wide, but it goes down to single-file and you can pass cars by yourself without needing that help of the draft. We’re going to miss that. It’s going to be repaved and kind of be in that big pack like Talladega again. I’ll miss it, but they’re not doing it just to do it. It is needed.
Allaway: What kind of general interests do you have away from the track?
Allmendinger: For me, I’m an active guy. I like to be out, playing sports and keeping busy. I’m trying to take up golf, which isn’t good or bad. It’s getting better, like the racing, but I still need a lot of improvement.
I like playing basketball, working out and being active. I get bored easily; I have a short attention span, so as long as I’m doing something, I’m happy.
Allaway: I hear that. I play some golf, but I don’t have the time to get better.
Allmendinger: You should be a racecar driver.
Allaway: I wish I could. Don’t have the money. Got to have a lot of money to start.
Allmendinger: Yeah, I know. Ask my parents — they mortgaged their house three times.