AJ started off the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the 25th position. While the Insignia / Best Buy Ford Fusion had been good in all three practices earlier in the weekend, qualifying wasn’t what AJ had hoped and he had some traffic to work through in the opening laps.
The car was good from the start with only a little bit of tightness in the center of the corner and needing just a bit more grip in the rear coming off the corner. AJ radioed in that the back end was dancing around a little bit, and that he wasn’t real comfortable with the high lane. But the car was running so well down on the white line that he was putting down some of the fastest laps on the track. The only problem seemed to be if he got stuck in traffic and couldn’t get by on the bottom.
With a good balanced race car that was just a touch on the free side even after adjustments, AJ steadily made his way through the pack. By lap 100 AJ was battling for a spot inside the top 10 and was fighting a car that didn’t have any rear grip. That scenario continued to play out through the middle laps of the race – no grip, and just on the edge of the top 10.
One good thing that the #43 RPM team had going for them was that the car was fast on long runs. Running the bottom helped to save the tire wear on the car, and as others fell off the pace AJ would gradually make his way past them. The Insignia / Best Buy pit crew was also a big asset in the team effort in Sunday’s race and either maintained or gained track position with each pit stop.
Now solidly running between 5th and 8th position for the second half of the race, AJ continued to make forward gains. Other than one adjustment that didn’t seem to help the car and the continuing problem with the back end dancing around, the #43 Ford Fusion was a solid contender all race long. And as the closing laps wound down in a long run, AJ again started picking up spots.
An ill timed caution just as AJ was starting to make a move on Matt Kenseth for 4th place threw all of that out the window though, as Mike Shiplett had to make a call on whether or not to pit. As AJ sat in 5th place, I was against the call to come in and pit, but when pit road opened everyone came and Mike made the call to take four tires while a few cars gambled and only took two.
Now sitting in 8th place at the restart, AJ dove down to the bottom when the green flag flew and started digging. Fortunately, the bottom turned out to be a great place as a multi car incident was triggered in front of him and he managed to slip just below the spinning car of Jamie McMurray. And NASCAR’s new policy of multiple tries for a green-white-checker finish came into play.
Restarting in 6th place this time, AJ got stuck in a bad spot as Juan Pablo Montoya’s car in line ahead of him spun the tires on the final restart. Taking it three wide in the middle to avoid teammate Kasey Kahne, AJ somehow managed to keep the gas pedal down and not tear up the car. He fought hard to try and get a top 5 out of the day, but ultimately the car just wasn’t handling at its best in that last run and he was afraid of taking himself out if he pushed too hard.
All in all it was a good solid day not only for AJ and the #43 Insignia team, but also for Richard Petty Motorsports as a whole. Kahne ended up finishing in 4th, and new teammate Paul Menard gambled on two tires and finished in 5th. Now the teams go into a down weekend with momentum enough to carry over to Bristol in two weeks. Best Buy got a lot of quality TV time for their Insignia brand, and I’m sure AJ is gaining confidence back in Mike and the cars after a rough start to the season. It was a good weekend!