2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 43 Best Buy/Air Force Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
Owner: Richard Petty Petty/Andrew Murstein/Doug Bergeron
Crew Chief: Mike Shiplett
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 19th (2010)
Hometown: Los Gatos, Calif.
Born: December 16, 1981
Consistency has always been the key to success in NASCAR, but it takes baby steps to develop it. For AJ Allmendinger, 2010 was a year of slow, steady growth, and now, with his long-term employment seemingly settled, it’s time to step up and fill the role of team leader.
Allmendinger ended last season surrounded by an air of uncertainty, as his Richard Petty Motorsports team teetered on the brink of collapse while former owner George Gillett dodged both creditors and bankruptcy. But Richard Petty says that’s behind the team now, and a purchase announced in late November by Medallion Financial and VeriFone systems left the King, not the bankers, in charge of day-to-day operations once again.
His financial future seemingly secure, Petty has a tremendous amount of faith in Allmendinger, despite a verbal dustup at Daytona in July. There’s a reason he’s forgiven him quickly: The driver has shown flashes of brilliance in second-tier equipment, the type of brilliance not seen in the King’s car since Bobby Hamilton in the mid-1990s. Toward the end of 2010, amid the team’s struggles, Allmendinger very quietly took six top-12 finishes in the final 11 races. Considering the general upheaval around him, with a team uncertain if it would even show up at the track from week to week, that focus and dedication were exceptional.
Allmendinger and crew chief Mike Shiplett make a good match, as Shiplett knows how to work a less-than-perfect racecar to its best advantage. Ford is also behind the team and has a vested interest in making sure it stays afloat. While the Blue Ovals suffered as a whole early in 2010, they came on strong at the end, winning the last two races, and will head into 2011 on a hot streak thanks to FR9 engines built by the tuners at Roush-Yates Engines. RPM gets its chassis from Roush Fenway Racing, so the equipment and the resources will continue to flow.
Clearly, there are sighs of relief coming out of the RPM camp. But this investor group is the fifth merger Petty has had in the last two years. Will these owners prove to be legit? And with Kasey Kahne gone, how will Allmendinger handle the pressure of being the team’s No. 1 driver? If the money sticks, watch out — he’s a trendy Chase sleeper pick. If not, expect a pink slip or a shop closure by the end of November.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Allmendinger gets respect for showing considerable progress and sticking it out in Sprint Cup. “He’s fast and getting faster,” says one rival crew chief. “There’s no getting around that. When he came to NASCAR, he struggled about as bad as it’s possible for a driver to do. He’s still got a lot of work to do in regard to consistency, and there’s uncertainty with his team. If he gets a decent chance, I think eventually he’ll make a name for himself.”
Another crew chief says, “Allmendinger is like a lot of drivers who come here from other series. First he learns how to go fast, and then he has to learn how to race. He’s gotten gradually better and better. Is he ready to win races? Not quite. It’s hard to tell how far he can go because he hasn’t reached his ceiling and nobody really knows exactly where that ceiling is. We know how much he’s improved, but we don’t know how much he can improve. That’s not a criticism in any way. It’s the course every driver takes. In a way, you can’t see potential until it’s reached.”
Top 5s: 2
Top 10s: 8
Laps Led: 181
Laps Completed: 10,196
Lead Lap Finishes: 26
Bonus Points: 25
Races Led: 5
Average Start: 16.1
Average Finish: 17.8
After First 26 Races: 22nd
Final Points Standing: 19th
Driver Rating: 79.1 (21st)