After qualifying in twentieth place on Thursday despite an early draw, AJ was pretty confident going into the race on Saturday night. Friday practice had them scratching their heads a little bit as the car went from tight to loose to tight again. But the overall balance wasn’t too bad, even though the power coming off the corners could have been better.
Once the green flag flew, I worried a bit about how well the car would perform as AJ dropped back a couple of spots. But he got them right back after a handful of laps and it seemed like the longer a tire run went on, the faster he would get. So even though it made the race none too exciting to watch from home, the long green runs were AJ’s best friend.
AJ spent pretty much the entire race fighting front grip in the center of the turns. Then it seemed like if they got the front to turn better, then the car would end up being too loose in the rear. This made it a handful for the driver, but AJ did the best he could and moved up to the very top of the race track to help the condition.
Unfortunately, since he couldn’t get the car to turn down on the bottom, he pretty much just had one racing line to choose from. So when he would get behind someone who was running the high line as well, he had a hard time going low and completing the pass. This left him stuck in the same place he started, and he stayed right around twentieth for the first part of the race.
Some good adjustments by crew chief Sammy Johns improved the handling in the middle part of the race, and by the halfway point AJ was up to 16th position as Mark Martin continued to put a bunch of cars a lap or more down. Then things started taking a turn for the worse for the Hunt Brother’s Pizza team.
A bad adjustment under yellow which made the car the worst it had been all night, combined with a long green run had AJ fighting to keep the leader behind him. Getting ready to pit under green flag conditions, spotter Tony came on the radio and said that there was possible debris on the track and that NASCAR officials were looking. Not wanting to get caught by a caution after pitting, Sammy made a call to hold off coming down pit road for an extra lap.
That extra lap nearly cost the 44 team, as well as putting points leader Tony Stewart in jeopardy. With AJ pitting right in front of the 14 team on pit road, the crew chiefs usually coordinate green flag stops to not be in each other’s way. But with the call to leave AJ out an extra lap, Stewart was just exiting his pits as AJ was trying to pull into his.
The near miss cost AJ precious seconds on pit road, and when pit stops cycled out, AJ found himself behind the leader. He managed to hold onto the lucky dog position for a little while, but eventually Mark Martin put two more cars a lap down before the caution again came out on lap 211.
When the green flag fell, AJ was battling with the #1 car of Martin Truex, Jr. for the lucky dog spot, but since his car wasn’t the best on short runs, he didn’t manage to make the pass before the caution again flew just four laps later. With only a handful of laps on the tires though, Sammy made the call to stay out and try for the lucky dog again.
Restarting the race in the 19th spot and the first car one lap down, the 44 team was hoping for another quick caution. They got it, but they were almost a part of it as well. Paul Menard cut a tire after contact with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Menard’s car went up and bounced off the wall right where AJ was running. At the time, AJ was watching to his left as he tried to clear David Ragan and didn’t see the incident in front of him. Spotter Tony was on the ball however, and called for AJ to go low. Menard’s car came down off the wall, but AJ narrowly squeezed through in the middle of the track.
That close call put AJ back on the lead lap, and after starting at the tail of the pack in 18th position, he managed to race up through the lap cars and get two more spots before the caution came out again. Now, thanks to the new double file restarts, AJ would be able to start up with all of the cars that he was racing for position.
Even though they could go the distance on fuel, Sammy called AJ to pit road for fresh tires and a track bar adjustment. The new tires allowed for a few laps of maneuverability before the conditions of the car forced him to run the high line again, and AJ managed to race his way past several cars who were on older tires.
A late race caution set up a three lap shootout to the end, and unfortunately for AJ the lead lap cars behind him dropped off to pit road for some new tires themselves while he stayed on the track. Sitting in P13 for the restart left me wondering if AJ would be a sitting duck for those cars to get by. He raced his butt off in those final laps though, and battled Carl Edwards right to the checkered flag to maintain his final scoring position of 13th.
It was a long, hard fight all night at Chicagoland for the 44 team, but despite some frustration with Sammy for the pit road miscue and a heated epithet aimed at one of AJ’s teammates, it was a good night for the Hunt Brother’s group. He matched his finish in the race last year, and moved up two spots in the points standings to 27th.
I think the biggest thing that impressed me on Saturday night was the calculated way that AJ managed his tire wear. After a handful of laps he would come on the radio and ask how many green flag laps they had run. And finally under one caution explained that’s how many laps that he could race in the other grooves before being forced to the top of the track for better handling.
I’m sure anyone else who has listened in on AJ’s radio chatter since he started in Cup in 2007 knows how much he has learned in that amount of time. When he first started he couldn’t even explain what was wrong with the handling, let alone how to fix it. Now he gives excellent detailed feedback, and also offers his input on what changes to make to the car. After this weekend, it’s very evident that he is still expanding his knowledge. Big thumbs up for that!