February 23, 2012
Positive change for Allmendinger
By DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency
DAYTONA, FLA. - It has been season of great change for A.J. Allmendinger in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The 30-year-old native of Los Gatos, Calif., walked away from one racing icon — Richard Petty — to hook up with another -- Roger Penske.
To be fair, his split with Richard Petty Motorsports was an amicable one, the Best Buy sponsorship on the No. 43 Ford had dissolved and there were few prospects to take over that program.
But then Kurt Busch had his meltdown at Homestead Miami Speedway, opening up one of the most prized rides in all of NASCAR: The No. 22 Pennzoil-sponsored Dodge.
When Allmendinger was contacted by Penske officials to take over that car, he jumped at the chance.
What it did for Allmendinger is that he immediately became part of the conversation as a Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship contender.
Since winning the then-Toronto Molson Indy back in 2006 and his subsequent jump to NASCAR, Allmendinger has struggled, even though he did have a breakout season in 2011 when he finished just one spot shy of a Chase berth but still without a win in the world's top stock car racing series.
"I look at it as I was 13th when the Chase started last year, I missed it by one spot," he said.
This season with Penske, Allmendinger thinks that he can do more than just break his winless skein -- he sees multiple wins as a real possibility.
"For me, it's simple; Win races and make the Chase," Allmendinger said on Wednesday. "The reason I made the change this year was to go out there and raise my game to the next level, become one of those drivers who contend for race wins every weekend."
That kind of consistency is what Allmendinger thinks has been missing from his resume over his first five NASCAR seasons.
Also, he knows that at the Sprint Cup level the competition is tougher than in any racing series in the world.
"It's so tough to win these races," Allmendinger said. "You have to put yourself in position at least 20 to 25 times during the year to maybe win a couple of them.
"You can't put yourself in position (only) four or five times a year and expect to win one."
He said that while he didn't have to put much thinking into signing with the Penske organization, it was still a daunting proposition to have to adjust to a whole new racing environment.
"It's always a little bit scary to make change — at least it is for me," Allmendinger said. "You get into a place where you've been for a while and get comfortable and used to how everything is run.
"You make a change and everything is different. You have to learn everybody and everybody's tendencies and understand what they want.
"At the same time, that's the exciting part. To me it's been really, really good. At RPM, I really enjoyed the people there. At the end of the year, when (Penske) wasn't even on my radar, I was happy to be (at RPM).
"But when you get an opportunity like this with the Penske organization, to be a driver for Mr. Penske, for me to walk into the shop, you just see all the pictures from Mark Donohue on down to Rick Mears and continuing, that to me is exciting."
What wasn't exciting for Allmendinger in his first effort in the No. 22 Dodge was being part of one of the wrecks in last week's Budweiser Shootout.
But he thinks that Thursday's Gatorade Duels will be a much truer portrait of what will happen on Sunday in the Daytona 500 than the wreckfest that was the Shootout.
"Obviously, the Shootout was crazy," Allmendinger said. "Overall for me, I think the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge is quick. We're going to have a shot at it, but there are a lot of guys that will too.
"Hopefully, we'll play it smart and be in the right position at the right time at the end of the race."
He said now that Cup drivers have had a chance to get rid of some of the off-season rust in the Shootout, the racing should be less aggressive and that should play into his hand.
"In the Shootout, it's like we dropped the green and everybody had all this anxiety and hadn't raced all winter and it was time to go," he said. "I think that if everybody just plays it a little bit more cool for the Duels, maybe I'll try to get up there in the mix and maybe go for the lead.
"Of course, you'd like to win the Duel, but the thing coming out of the Duels is not having a wrecked race car."
As for his prospects in the Daytona 500, Allmendinger said he knows the pressure of driving the No. 22 Dodge will be high.
"They expect a high level," he said of the team's expectations. "Mr. Penske himself expects a high level. But nobody puts as much pressure on me as I do."