Looking at A. J. Allmendinger today–14th in driver points and a win away from a possible Chase berth–it’s easy to forget that just a year ago, Allmendinger’s team was reportedly facing bankruptcy and was not expected to be in the Sprint Cup Series this year. Allmendinger and his teammate Marcos Ambrose have defied the odds, bringing back Richard Petty Motorsports from the brink of disaster. Ambrose grabbed the team’s first win of the season at Watkins Glen and Allmendinger is having the best points season of his career, sitting on the brink of the Chase. Frontstretch.com’s Amy Henderson sat down with Allmendinger in Atlanta to discuss the turnaround, his relationship with NASCAR’s King, and the state of the sport.
*Amy Henderson, Frontstretch.com:* Let’s start off talking a little about your 2011 season so far: 14th in points, 16.6 average finish. It looks like you’re having a really strong, solid year. Do you feel as though you’re found a consistent foundation to build on from here?
*A. J. Allmendinger:* I think we definitely have something we can build off of. At different times during the year, I felt we were a little bit too inconsistent. It’s a little bit surprising that when we’d miss it, we’d miss it pretty bad; there were certain racetracks that we were just off at. But I think that over the last six weeks with the addition of Greg Erwin, I think it’s been good. These weekends now, they move along really smooth. We get a lot of laps on the racetrack. I think everybody’s gelling. To be 14th in points and going into (Atlanta) and Richmond with people still talking about your name to make the Chase, you know, that’s a good thing. Of course, you’d always like to be better. We’d like to have a lot more top 5s, top 10s, but we’re an 11th-15th place race team right now. We run there strong, and I feel like when we’re at our best we can be one of the best race teams. We’ve just got to be more consistent.
*Henderson:* You mentioned Greg Erwin coming on board and things starting to gel. How has that helped your team? How well are you and Greg communicating in the car?
*Allmendinger:* To start with, Mike Shiplett did a great job with this race team. Back when it was Gillett-Evernham, the No. 10 team, it was a lot of the same guys. So Mike really did a good job at building a great foundation for this race team. He was a really solid crew chief as far as being organized and getting the team where we needed to be. So when Greg came along, his experience level, I think, was probably the biggest help. He’s been in the Chase, won a lot of races, and been a championship contender. I think his experience level has helped not just me, but everybody on the race team.
_(Richard Petty enters)_
*Allmendinger:* (laughing) And maybe this guy too.
*Henderson:* You’re driving what is probably the most famous racecar in NASCAR, owned by an icon of the sport. Does that put any extra pressure on you to perform?
*Allmendinger:* I don’t think so. The outside pressure, obviously, is there. But for me, more comes from the inside. I want to be the guy to put the No. 43 back in victory lane. I know it would be a good thing for NASCAR. It would be a great thing for that old-school fan base who love the No. 43 and haven’t seen it in Victory Lane in a while. You know, though, that mostly comes from me. He doesn’t put any more pressure on me than anybody else. It’s just me, internally. I want to get the No. 43 to Victory Lane. I want it for the race team, for the King. There’s times I think we’re close, and times it still needs some work.
*Henderson:* Can you talk a little about your relationship with Richard Petty? He obviously has a ton of confidence in you; you’re his guy. How does that help your mindset going into the race weekends?
*Allmendinger:* It’s good to have somebody like that…I mean, he’s the King! To have him joke around with you or to throw his arm around you when he walks in and have that confidence level is great. There are times that he has to get on me about making sure I stay calm, things like that. I think we have a good relationship. He’s a fantastic guy to be around. To me, being an open-wheel guy, growing up doing that, to be in the No. 43 car and have the King walk up and talk to you is pretty cool.
*Henderson:* What is the biggest thing you’ve learned from the King?
*Allmendinger:* Not anything inside the racecar, really; the cars are so different now. But it’s just your demeanor, how you handle yourself, how to stay calm and things like that. It’s more stuff, not so much about driving the racecar, but staying calm in it and how you handle yourself outside the racecar.
*Henderson:* There has been some talk of adding a third team at RPM. That’s a long way from the team that, a year ago, the speculation was you weren’t even going to be here this year. You stuck around through that and it turned out for the better. Is adding a third team something that would be helpful to you?
*Allmendinger:* It’s helpful if it’s done the right way. The thing is that we can’t try to take off too much right away, we can’t bite off too much. If all the sponsorship is there for all three cars and it’s done the right way? Sure, it can only help. If you get a guy, say, like Clint Bowyer who’s won races and got great experience, that can only be a benefit. But it’s got to be done in the right way. That’s the stuff for me, that you look at. As you said, we’re a team that just barely missed bankruptcy, and we’re still making sure that we’ve got everything kind of buttoned up for next year among our two cars. It’s only good if it’s done the right way. There are other teams that have shown that. You look at Richard Childress Racing when they first went to four cars. They were terrible because of it. You take a team like Gibbs, who could easily do a fourth car, but they won’t do it unless it’s done the right way. I think that’s the main thing.
*Henderson:* Your team still has a chance at making the Chase in the next two weeks if you get a win. There’s also the possibility that you don’t make it, but you can look back on it as a strong rebuilding year. Can a team take the disappointment of not making the Chase and turn it into something positive for 2012?
*Allmendinger:* To me it’s funny because there are certain race teams that it would crush their seasons if they missed the Chase. You look at a guy like Greg Biffle, who’s used to being in there and if he doesn’t make it, it’s a real shock to their system. To me the Chase doesn’t define our season. Of course we want to make it–that’s the ultimate goal. And we’re going to try everything we can these two weeks to get a win and get in the Chase. But I go back to the fact that we were a team that was almost not here. I kind of laugh because halfway through the season, everybody was like, ‘ok, Chase.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa. We just went down to two cars!’ The expectations from everybody around the sport were that way and I was like, ‘we’re not there yet.’ The way I look at it is we’re 14th in points. That’s the highest I’ve ever been in points by far at this point. We’re getting better as a race team. I look at it like whether we get into the Chase or not, I still use it as if we’re in it.
You put yourself up against all those teams those last ten races. If we run those last ten races and we’re way better than where we started the season, then that’s only good. You go there and whether we get a win in the next two weeks or get a win in the Chase even not being in the Chase, that’s a good year. It doesn’t define our race team.
*Henderson:* Can you almost use it to your advantage if you don’t make it? Those guys have to concentrate on the Chase while you can be concentrating on next year.
*Allmendinger:* You can to a certain extent. Every race team is doing everything they can out there to be the best they can. To me, it’s a week-to-week thing. The sport is so tough and it works on you so hard that it’s just a one-race season every week. That’s all it is. We know they pay the most points for the win and on down but it’s just a one-race season for me every weekend.
*Henderson:* There is a lot of talk about the car being too much of the overall equation versus the driver. Do you think that’s true, and if it is, is there anything that can be done about it in a day where the cars are so technologically advanced that they almost have to be aero dependent?
*Allmendinger:* It’s something that ultimately whether it is or it’s not, as a team, it all goes together. You need a good racecar driver, you need a great car, you need a great crew. I laugh because I’ve come from different forms of racing where the aero dependency was huge. If you look at Formula 1, nobody was passing each other. They had to do certain rules, almost gimmicks to make sure there’s passing. You look at Indy cars, when they run on ovals it’s tough for people to pass each other. It’s the way technology is right now. Believe me, every race team out there is trying to figure out how when you’re tucked up under somebody it won’t make you aero-tight. If you figure it out, that person is going to win a lot. It’s just the way it is. It goes in times when it’s worse than others, but that’s the way the world is, not just about auto racing.
*Henderson:* If you had the chance to run NASCAR for one day, what would be the first thing you would do?
*Allmendinger:* I’d give me a lot more horsepower and a lot better rules than everybody else! No, to me it’s not that they’re doing anything wrong. I think the racing has been pretty good this year. I mean, if you look at the points, there’s no clear favorite going into the championship. All of a sudden, Brad’s gotten on a hot streak and all of a sudden, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, maybe Brad’s the guy.’ Three weeks ago, Kyle was the man. Before that, a different guy would win every weekend. I think the racing is really good. The championship, the way they do it with making the Chase now with a win, I mean, there’s literally twelve guys that have a chance at this thing.
To me, the biggest thing we’ve got to do is figure out how to have cheaper seats for races and hotels and parking and allow the families who the economy has kept from coming to these races back in. That’s the only thing I think we need to do. I don’t think there’s anything on track that we really need to fix. We’ve got to figure out how to help people come to the races.
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