Commentary

AJ Allmendinger's return a good sign

Updated: August 6, 2010, 4:12 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- AJ Allmendinger needed convincing before agreeing to stay at Richard Petty Motorsports. So did his agent, Tara Ragan.

Who could blame them? Things have looked a little shaky at RPM in recent months.

Kasey Kahne, the team's anchor, is leaving, and more than likely, so is Budweiser, which sponsors Kahne's car.

Elliott Sadler is on the way out. It appears Paul Menard, and his father's sponsorship cash, is moving on, probably to Richard Childress Racing.

And it looked like Allmendinger was halfway out the door after a heated exchange with Petty in the Daytona garage after the July race, when Allmendinger finished 36th.

Arguing with the King? Sacrilege.

But it showed how much Allmendinger wants to win. Maybe that's what Petty wanted to know.

When negotiating time came, Allmendinger and Ragan needed to know that RPM wasn't headed toward RIP status.

"Tara was not easy on these guys," Allmendinger said. "She asked all the hard questions, all the things I needed to know to feel comfortable here.

Richard Petty
AP Photo/David GrahamRichard Petty said his team isn't ready to announce all its good news at once.

"We have potential here, but I needed the right answers. In the end, we got the answers we wanted, that this is a stable place and a place where we can build the future."

Petty and co-owner Foster Gillett must have done some impressive selling in those meetings, probably telling Allmendinger a few things they haven't told everyone else. Not yet, anyway.

"We've got some announcements in our pocket," Petty said. "But we want to have other press conferences and spread it out a little bit."

Whatever it was, it convinced Allmendinger -- with the recommendation from Ragan -- to sign a new multiyear contract.

"We have a lot more good news coming as an organization in a few weeks," Gillett said. "I think AJ saw how committed we are. And we have some partners that will continue to support us. Some things already are done. Things are very good here."

No one has said that at RPM in a long time, but things are looking up. One of those good things on the horizon probably is Marcos Ambrose joining the organization, possibly in the No. 9 Ford as Kahne's replacement.

Ambrose has hinted he might go back to Australia, but heading home down under is a no go if RPM wants him. It has been a disappointing sophomore season for Ambrose, but getting the No. 9 seat could be the switch he needs to take the next step.

The big unknown is sponsorship across the board at RPM. Budweiser is expected to move to Kevin Harvick's car at Richard Childress Racing next season. Best Buy probably is staying on the No. 43 Ford with Allmendinger, but nothing else is clear.

Whether RPM remains a four-car operation is iffy, but even if it doesn't, the organization isn't going away, which looked possible four months ago. People questioned whether the team would survive.

"I understand the criticism," Gillett said. "It's part of the sport. But I can tell you that Richard, AJ and I are our hardest critics."

NASCAR needs RPM in Cup and the Petty name in the sport, even if Richard is only a figurehead and a lure for sponsors. Ford also needs RPM to succeed to give the manufacturer a second solid organization in the alliance with Roush Fenway Racing.

Allmendinger said Ford is committed to RPM, which was one of those things he needed to know to stay put. Allmendinger was given those assurances from Jamie Allison, the director of Ford Racing.

"Jamie and Ford have been huge supporters of this team and me," Allmendinger said. "In the end, it was about the relationship with Ford. They give us all the tools we could ask for. We're building on the new motor, and it was great to see Ford back in Victory Lane last week [at Pocono with Greg Biffle] with the new motor."

Foster Gillett We have a lot more good news coming as an organization in a few weeks. I think AJ saw how committed we are. And we have some partners that will continue to support us. Some things already are done. Things are very good here.

-- RPM co-owner Foster Gillett

RPM and Ford are banking that Allmendinger can become the contending driver that they had in Kahne. Allmendinger will be 29 when the new deal starts next season. He has yet to win a Cup race, but now he's the No. 1 guy at RPM and expectations will rise.

Allmendinger ranks 22nd in the season standings with three top-10 finishes. Kahne is 16th with seven top-10s in his lame-duck year before heading to Hendrick Motorsports.

"It excites me to know I can be 'the guy' here," Allmendinger said. "That was another huge selling point."

Allmendinger said he was tempted by other teams and other rides, although it's unclear what those were.

"When you're in this process, you look around at all your options," Allmendinger said. "I talked to a lot of teams. To have some big team owners wanting to talk to me was pretty special. It tells me that I'm moving the right direction as a driver."

It shows that other team owners believe in Allmendinger's potential. We're talking about a guy who only has raced stock cars for four years. The Los Gatos, Calif., native was well on his way to stardom in open-wheel racing as a five-race winner in the Champ Car World Series in 2006.

But that league was crumbling and Allmendinger saw a better future in his move to NASCAR. After a slow start at Red Bull Racing, Allmendinger has continued to improve in a Cup car.

"AJ has a passion for the sport," Gillett said. "That's obvious. He is in our shop daily and knows every single person on our team. Our guys root for him."

After losing Kahne, Gillett knew it was critical to keep Allmendinger in the organization, and he knew it wouldn't be easy.

"One of the great moments for an athlete is the chance to choose what team he wants to be with," Gillett said. "We wanted AJ to choose the right reasons to be here. AJ is a big part of what we do and bigger part of the future."

A year or two down the road, fans may look back at Allmendinger's decision to stay as the key moment that saved RPM.

"It's the first time in my career I can say I'm in a place where I can build something special," Allmendinger said. "A lot of great things are happening at Richard Petty Motorsports.

"We're not where we want to be, but I see the potential to get better and contend for victories and ultimately win a championship. It's a good energy here. Hopefully this is the start of great things."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter