Monday, March 22, 2010

Bristol Race Recap

AJ Allmendinger’s weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway started out a little sketchy. He was on the bottom half of the practice sheet in Friday’s session with a time that put him in 24th position. Just a short while later in qualifying, he backed up that mid-pack time and placed 23rd on the starting grid. Needless to say, it wasn’t the strong run that the Richard Petty Motorsrpots team was probably hoping for at the infamous short track – especially after coming off of such a strong run at Atlanta.

Saturday seemed to be much better though, with the Insignia / Best Buy team posting a top ten in the first practice session before improving that to a 7th place time in Happy Hour. Unfortunately, the track conditions on Sunday were cloudy, cooler, and threatening rain – which was a far cry from the sun and warm temperatures on Saturday. So when the green flag flew on Sunday, AJ didn’t jump forward like this fan expected him to.

With no scanner audio to listen to during the first tire run, I don’t know what kind of condition AJ was battling. But just from watching my Trackpass Raceview, I could see that he was struggling. Then a problem on the front tire during the first pit stop made AJ’s situation worse by putting him even further back in the field. He restarted around 30th place and had to pass all the cars that he had just passed the run before.

Fortunately, it was just a short time before AJ was again running near 20th position. Unfortunately, that first bad pit stop was a foreshadow on the struggles ahead of him that day. On the next pit stop he got pinned in behind Bobby Labonte and had to be backed up before exiting. The tight quarters on pit road and a crew who just didn’t seem to be on their A game on Sunday put AJ back several positions on each pit stop the team made.

As far as handling went, crew chief Mike Shiplett kept trying to find the balance between being tight in the center of the corner and being loose coming off the corner. Every time they helped one condition, they seemed to hurt the other. The car was decent on long runs through the first half of the race. But towards the end, AJ radioed in that he was having problems with tire grip suddenly dropping off. With lap times slowing so dramatically at the end of the tire runs, I think it was difficult for Mike to call for just a two tire stop to gain the track position that they need.

The #43 Insignia car was decent all race long, but never really great. AJ struggled to pass cars only to have to pass them again every time they pitted. He never quite managed to break into the top 10 during the race, but he did stay out of trouble and brought the car home in one piece. Despite what could only be described as a race where the team struggled the entire 500 laps, AJ managed to eke a 17th place finish out of it. Obviously not what he was hoping for, but it could have been worse.

Next weekend it is on to another short track where passing is going to be difficult and tempers are going to flare. Track position will be key, and good calls on the box along with better pit stops by the crew will be a necessary ingredient to having a good day. The mean green Insignia machine will be gone at Martinsville, while Charter Communication has a turn on the famed #43, but hopefully the good luck of the last couple weeks remain.

To make my point about the pit stops hurting AJ's race position - here is the driver lap chart from Yahoo's NASCAR site. Those downward spikes coincide with the pit stops.

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