Move to NASCAR a bumpy transition for Allmendinger
A.J. Allmendinger was a rising star in the open-wheel ranks. But when it comes to stock cars and trucks, he admits he's still a work in progress, writes John Schwarb.
A.J. Allmendinger had to figure it was just his luck. Fridays are bad enough when there's not a cloud in the sky.
But when it rains, it's even worse for a rookie with no status in Nextel Cup.
Last week was another speed bump in Allmendinger's young stock car career, as rain washed out qualifying for the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. With the field set based on car owners' points, his Red Bull Toyota was out of the running.
It was another unnerving Friday, the dreaded day when he tries to qualify for races based on speed. It's the only way he can make the show.
"I hate Fridays. I hate Thursdays, too, because I think about Fridays," Allmendinger said. "You know there's a good chance of going home. It's just kind of a stressful thing from the start to finish."
In five of seven races, Allmendinger's No. 84 has failed to make the starting grid. It's stressful, but he can see the big picture.
"We know it's still a long work in progress," he said.
Waiting for success will be something new for the 25-year-old, who has run at the front everywhere else. From karting titles to a Barber Dodge Pro Series title at age 21 to a Champ Car Atlantic title in 2003, Allmendinger shot up the open-wheel ranks.
He won rookie of the year in Champ Car World Series racing in 2004, finished fifth in points in 2005, then after moving to a new team in the middle of last season, he went on a winning tear, picking up three consecutive wins and five overall.
Then, almost as quickly as he had shot to the top of Champ Car, he walked away. Red Bull, a sponsor in previous years, tabbed him to join its startup NASCAR team.
"It was his decision, I think he was looking at it long-term, where's the best opportunity for him," said Paul Tracy, a Champ Car driver for Forsythe Racing and Allmendinger's teammate during his winning run last year. "I think he could have done a couple more years [in Champ Car], he could have easily won the championship in the next couple years. He's got the talent to do that, he was beating Sebastian [Bourdais, reigning three-time series champion], which is not an easy thing to do. I think there would have been more options for him had he stayed."
Before Allmendinger's final Champ Car race, he delivered a pair of impressive performances in the Craftsman Truck Series. Bill Davis Racing, in a favor for Red Bull, put Allmendinger in one of its Toyota Tundras. In his truck debut in September 2006 at New Hampshire he moved from the back of the pack to finish on the lead lap in 13th, then a few weeks later at Talladega he finished fifth.
"He was very focused, a real quick study," Bill Davis said. "Anytime [teammates] Johnny Benson or Mike Skinner made suggestions, he took it all in and capitalized on it. He's got a ton of talent and I think he showcased it in the truck series."
This season has been a different story so far in the trucks. Allmendinger started the first four races (he'll run about a dozen in a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing) and finished better than 25th in only one: the opener at Daytona.
"It's just a learning experience for all of us. That's where we fit into this deal," said Jason Overstreet, crew chief for the No. 00 truck. "The finishes aren't showing it, but he's running better. He's got a tough task, going from a truck to a Cup car all the time."
The truck races are learning tools for the rookie, a way to get seat time and laps at tracks where the Cup series runs (you won't see Allmendinger at truck outposts like Milwaukee or Memphis). It was just about all he had for the first four weeks of the season.
At Daytona, Allmendinger crashed out of his Gatorade Duel race and missed the 500. At California and Atlanta his Tundra had engine problems, and at Vegas he was the last car bumped from the field.
"He took it quite hard, we all did," crew chief Ricky Viers said. "He's very competitive, very driven, it really bothers him when he doesn't make races. Coming from an open-wheel environment, he never had to go through what he's gone through. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart drove some kind of Busch car, Juan Pablo Montoya drove ARCA cars. We threw A.J. right in here with everybody."
Finally, at Bristol and Martinsville, Allmendinger qualified his No. 84 Camry for those prized Sunday drives. The finishes were afterthoughts (40th and 38th), but the main goal was reached in each race -- log a few hundred laps with the big boys, and keep learning.
Running at the short tracks in the Car of Tomorrow, notorious so far in its difficulty to maneuver through turns, Allmendinger has continued to learn that Cup racing is a world away from Champ Car.
"It's a totally different driving style, it's all about braking late and getting to the corner as quickly as possible -- the exact opposite of what you want to do in NASCAR," said Tracy, who ran six Busch races in 2006. "You've got to drive it pretty good, the key is slowing it down enough to roll the center, get the front to hook up. With those things you've got to slow down to go fast, and that's probably going to be the hardest thing for A.J., it's not in his DNA to slow down. He just wants to go fast all the time and drive it hard."
The hard part now is just getting the chance. Stuck in a glut of drivers outside the top 35 -- many of whom are fellow Toyota teams -- Allmendinger will have to rely on Fridays for the foreseeable future (he is 48th in owners points, 386 behind 35th). It's not the path to NASCAR stardom, but it is a progression toward where he wants to go.
"I still have a long ways to go to be one of the top guys, to be up there every weekend," he said. "But I knew this would be difficult going in. I didn't think it would take five races to make a race, but I knew it would be difficult.
"It makes me want it that much more."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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