Preseason Rank: 16
It’s a pretty common belief that AJ Allmendinger will be one of, if not the next first-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series. Half a dozen years after Allmendinger left Champ Car for the comfy confines of NASCAR, potential has turned into performance despite a tumultuous 2011 that included a crew chief change and a new investment group. Paired with Richard Petty Motorsports, he jumped to a career-best 15th in points and became the series’ most improved driver last season not named Brad Keselowski.
Now, those two up-and-comers have an opportunity to take the next step in their racing futures together: Allmendinger will be Keselowski’s teammate in 2012 after getting the nod to drive Penske Racing’s No. 22 Dodge. Enjoying what will most likely be a close (and fun) relationship with Keselowski is icing on the cake for Allmendinger, who signed on after a surprising offseason shakeup that started when Kurt Busch was let go after derogatory comments caught on camera towards ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch. Weeks later, in early December, Best Buy jumped ship at RPM’s No. 43, seeing a silver lining in former champ Matt Kenseth, which opened the door for a Christmastime round of musical chairs — one that left this former open-wheeler paired with a man who understands both worlds.
“I have always admired Roger Penske and the way his teams compete and win,” he said shortly after the hire. “I will do my very best to continue to build on the standard of excellence established across the organization.”
That he should, as he’s in position to have a breakout year after moving from one legend in Richard Petty to another with Penske’s successful motorsports background. And unlike the owner’s past “one-year blunders” following major departures, this hire comes to the table with proof he can contend at the Cup level. Last season, ’Dinger scored a career-high 10 top-10 finishes, pulled an average start of 14.9 and posted only one DNF. A wheelman defined by aggression, he’s learned to race within his means, never wrecking out of a race in 2011 while continuing to develop leadership skills discovered when RPM was once on the verge of bankruptcy.
For a Californian known by his outgoing, joking nature, that ability to turn serious was a big step in the maturation process. It should also prove a perfect match for Penske, a team in need of some stability in the wake of Busch’s departure and that of crew chief Steve Addington, which made the Shell Pennzoil camp a weekly episode of Dr. Phil.
Addington’s replacement at least has some familiarity with the program: Todd Gordon was the head wrench on the team’s No. 22 Nationwide Series Dodge last year. The last time Penske pulled such a move — last season — Paul Wolfe paired with Keselowski and recorded three victories, one pole and a fifth-place finish in the final standings. That duo should help their counterparts quickly get up to speed.
And then there’s Allmendinger’s hunger: In a year of five first-time winners last season, he was anxious over being the one shut out and ready to take the next step even before Penske came calling. So if 2012 can produce a rare combination of new first-time winner and Chase participant, expect Allmendinger to fit the bill.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
Allmendinger has been knocking on the door of Victory Lane for the last two years, only to come up short each time. An offseason team change to Penske Racing’s No. 22 could put him over the top.
“I think getting let go from Red Bull Racing was a blessing in disguise. Over the past two seasons he ran much more consistent in cars at RPM that were better prepared with better motors,” says an insider.
One media member agrees that he could be the next big winner in the sport: “Allmendinger should be the next first-time winner in NASCAR — especially after going to the 22. Look for a big run at The Glen — as long as Kurt Busch isn’t following him — and a breakout win at Charlotte or Dover. That’s a proven team he’s with now. If he doesn’t win, he’s got to take a long look in the mirror.”
Top 5s: 1
Top 10s: 10
Laps Led: 51
Laps Completed: 10,387
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 7
Races Led: 7
Average Start: 14.9
Average Finish: 16.1
After First 26 Races: 13th
Final Points Standing: 15th
Driver Rating: 80.5 (17th)
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