AJ Allmendinger has made the highlight reel in 2010, but for some it’s been in the “what were you thinking” segment.
Sunday at New Hampshire, Allmendinger was thinking that he liked to mix it up with the big dogs and could get used to it.
Sitting 21st in points heading into Daytona, it’s clear to see the improvement in the California driver. Bounced around from ride to ride, then taken out of his ride, Allmendinger finally landed with Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) where a year ago he sat 29th and it was uncertain whether he could race all year.
Now he's put himself front and center as the likely leader of the team when Kasey Kahne departs at season's end. The two are carrying the banner for RPM, Kahne is sitting 20th in points and Allmendinger is just one marker behind him.
While Ford hasn’t had a driver visit victory lane, and their marquee team of Roush-Fenway looks for answers, Allmendinger has cruised along this season and is cruising toward the top of the board.
New Hampshire was the second time this season that he was a factor for the win. The Berlin City Auto Group Ford ran a solid Top Six for much of the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 before finishing 10th. A late race caution, there’s always one, seemed to ruin his momentum.
“If you would have told me at the beginning of the day we were gonna finish 10th, I would have said, ‘Perfect,’" Allmendinger said after the race. “When you kind of run Top Five or Top Six all day and you finish 10th, it doesn’t feel quite as good.
“Today was a big day. This is probably one of my worst racetracks, so I felt like a real racecar driver out there today and that’s always a good thing. To run as well as we did and still get a Top 10 out of it, I’m excited to move forward.”
Moving forward as well as moving up appears to be in the No. 43 team’s future. The finish was Allmendinger’s third Top 10 of the season: he finished sixth at Atlanta, 10th at Pocono, and the mentioned 10th Sunday.
The smile and the feeling of being a “real racecar driver” could be as bright as some of the sponsors that have adorned the hood of his racecar.
The brightest day may have come in May at Dover. The history books will show a 14th place finish, but for Allmendinger and his fans, they’ll remember it as the day that he could have gone to victory lane.
He started eighth in the Autism Speaks 400 and had no problem driving into the Top Five and staying there.
Allmendinger was the only driver that could give Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson a run for their money, shocking in itself—no matter who the driver—when the two (Buch and Johnson) were the dominant drivers.
But once again it was an issue at the end of the race that did the team in. This time it was a loose lug nut and subsequent vibration that sent Allmendinger back to pit road.
Just weeks before his incredible Dover run, he ran the fastest in qualifying at Phoenix, picking up his first career pole in the Subway Fit Fresh 600. The pole gave way to Allmendinger leading 17 laps. To date, Allmendinger’s led 33 laps this season: 11 in the Daytona 500, 17 at Phoenix and five at Talladega.
Don’t look now but it seems that the open-wheel defector is becoming the x-factor.
Running up front seems to suit the young driver and it can’t hurt in the confidence department. He’s not afraid to go push it to the limit and do what it takes to get the job done.
That’s both on the track and off; he’s become quite the campaigns-men when it's time to try and get into the Sprint All-Star race.
Opposite the happy and fun individual side of Allmendinger, there's the fierce competitor. He can provide quite the interview if caught at the wrong time and isn’t afraid to mix it up with those that might not expect it.
But while it makes for good TV, it’s what caused the controversy that Allmendinger is most likely remembered for this season.
Unless of course many still replay the video of Allmendinger taking out Johnson at Darlington. The two were involved in a vicious accident when he lost his brakes going into turn three, spinning right in front of the four-time champion. The two were okay and moved onto the following week, but it wouldn’t be until Pocono that Allmendinger had everyone’s attention again—and not in a good way.
On the last lap Allmendinger blocked teammate Kasey Kahne instead of giving the position, no harm done. Except, the move saw Kahne decide to keep his foot in it and go through the grass, causing him to come back up the track and collect many drivers. Kahne and a few others weren’t happy but Allmendinger stood by his move.
NASCAR fans might want to get used to that attitude, if the first 17 races of the 2010 season were any indication they’ll be seeing a lot more of him near the front. What will be a storyline to watch is how far can he go starting this weekend at Daytona.
In three career points races at the World Center of Racing, Allmendinger finished third in the 2009 Daytona 500, 17th in the Coke Zero 400, and 32nd in the Daytona 500 earlier this year. Those are just numbers though and when it comes to how well a driver gets around a restrictor plate track, numbers can be deceiving.
“We’ve got a fat car in Daytona this year,” Allmendinger said. “We’re going back with the same car, so I don’t see why we can’t win that thing.”
Looks like The Dinger thinks he could be NASCAR’s newest winner.