Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: AJ Allmendinger & RPM Walking Tight Rope Over the Abyss

In the October 7 edition of Vexing Vito, I wrote how it was a bit disappointing that both Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne were leaving Richard Petty Motorsports. After all, Menard has had a number of promising runs in his No. 98 Ford this season, finding himself in the top 12 at Bristol earlier this season. Kahne had been arguably the strongest Ford most of the year until Roush Fenway got their act together – which was largely the result of the efforts of Kahne and the RPM teams passing along a front end geometry that undid a years worth of data acquisition ills across the way.

How could Ford let a quarter of its talent just up and vanish and not replace them?

Well, not only did the reasons become crystal clear last week, but now that number has increased to half of the Ford camp on the chopping block.

A few days ago it was questionable whether RPM would be at Talladega, but now all four cars are confirmed to be on site, with cars and engines supplied by Roush Fenway Racing. After that, however, things begin to get a bit complicated. While 2011 is a crapshoot, the rest of 2010 is in doubt as well. Perhaps the saddest casualty of all this – besides the number of talented crewmen who stand to lose their jobs before the season is even over – is AJ Allmendinger.

Having rose to prominence in what was the Champ Car World Series in 2006, winning his first race with Forsythe Championship Racing halfway through the season and five races total that year. Later that season, he would give NASCAR a try in one of Bill Davis’s Truck entries, which led him to partner with Brian Vickers as the drivers for the new Team Red Bull venture.

Allmendinger’s rookie season was trying to say the least, failing to qualify for seven of the first 10 races, including the season-opening spectacle that is the Daytona 500. 19 DNQs and a best finish of 15th left nowhere to go but up for 2008. He missed Daytona again, and then was effectively benched for a couple of weeks while Mike Skinner was picked as a consultant of sorts, only to confirm that the cars weren’t that great, but at least he was able to get them in the show. Allmendinger would record a pair of top 10s, but was let go prior to the end of the season and replaced by Scott Speed.

Allmendinger landed at Gillett Evernham Motorsports in the No. 10. Unfortunately, he walked right back into the position of having to qualify on speed. Luckily, he finally found a good combination with crew chief Mike Shiplett that he could build from. Three top-15 finishes in five races could not boost the No. 10 into the Top 35, but it got them close (after being nearly 300 points out of 35th in owner points). The first race of 2009 brought a third place yielded a third-place finish in the Daytona 500, which was just a sign of what was to come. Allmendinger qualified for all 36 races for the first time, scoring a total of six top 10s.

Not bad for a driver who was doing it without a salary; a small sacrifice to simply gain some seat time, have the chance to race at every track, keep current and accelerate the learning curve. There is only one thing a driver fears more than fire or getting upside down: becoming irrelevant.

2010 was his breakout season so far, winning the pole at Phoenix in April, leading 11 laps in the Daytona 500, scoring a top five at Watkins Glen and dominating Dover until a flat tire ended any shot of victory. Allmendinger made headlines in August, signing a new multi-year contract with RPM, and looked forward to teaming up with Marcos Ambrose in the No. 9 Ford. In an interview with Frontstretch writer Jay Pennell, Allmendinger made no bones about having the Jenga! blocks pulled out from him this late in the season – one that held so much promise for the rest of the year and beyond.

“I’d be freaking lying to your face if I said, ‘It’s all good.”

While Ford announced this week that they posted a $1.7 billion profit last quarter, that does not mean that they are ready to fully fund a mid-pack NASCAR effort. Toyota however, may be coming to RPM and Allmendinger’s rescue.

Richard Petty who currently owns 4% of the company that bears his name, is reportedly in discussions with Michael Waltrip Racing and Toyota to help salvage what is left of the organization that won six races in 2006 and finished eighth in points – as well as the most storied and famous number in motorsports. RPM nearly went to Toyota last summer when Chrysler was no longer able to muster any financial backing for their race teams, but could not match the money that Ford was willing to pony up to offer technical and financial support.

Drivers and teams come and go in this sport just about as often as sponsors and paint schemes. Allmendinger and Richard Petty Motorsports, however, are two that really need to stay around. Allmendinger is a very talented driver who is just on the cusp of rounding the corner and becoming a contender with a little more experience and cars that are just a bit more consistent. Richard Petty and the No. 43 are synonymous with NASCAR and are one of the few links to the past that we still have and celebrate on a weekly basis, even if in name and image only.

While we are in the 11th hour of the 2010 season, here’s hoping that somebody or something comes along to salvage one burgeoning success story, and another who helped drive the sport to where it is today.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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